Germany plans highway test track for self-driving cars

Germany's highway test track for self-driving cars
Designated self-driving car test track on the A9 Autobahn.
It will start in the Bavarian section of the highway (marked yellow), home to BMW and Audi headquarters.

“We will set up the A9 Autobahn (motorway) in Bavaria as a test track,” Transport Minister Alexander Dobrindt told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung in Berlin in an exclusive interview today.

The first measures for the pilot project “Digital Highway” should start this year. “The German car industry will be a world leader in digital cars” said Mr. Dobrindt. The motorway should be technically equipped so that it will also allow communication between road and vehicle, as well as from vehicle to vehicle. “First there will be vehicles with driver assistance systems and then it can also be used with fully automated vehicles,” said Dobrindt.

“The German auto industry can be a world leader in digital cars…” continued Mr. Dobrindt. The politician relies on independence from companies like Google. ”The German manufacturers will not rely on Google”, Dobrindt stated. They were in the process together with science - such as the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft - to develop their own platforms for networking and communication of data.

So far today’s news. Now my 5 cents.

First, “Digital Cars” or “Digitales Auto” in German. The word makes as much sense in my English translation as in the original German article - none. But one can assume that with digital car he means “all things software-related”, so not only the self-driving algorithms itself but also car-2-car communication plus some kind of on-board entertainment.

Second, it certainly looks like the Google self-driving car experiments have woken up the German car industry and they try to catch up. That should only accelerate the development on all sides and is good news. It will be interesting to see if classic car makers can transform themselves to being 50% software development companies.

Last but not least it might come to a surprise to some that Germany, home of quite a few car companies, has no designated public test track for self-driving cars yet. But setting up a test track is a legally daunting tasks. Unlike the USA, Germany signed the Vienna Convention on Road Traffic in 1968. The article “Legal Challenges to Self-Driving Cars in Germany” describes it well:

[Until last year] it had been both mandatory as well as common sense of the 1968 Convention on Road Traffic, that: “Every driver shall at all times be able to control his vehicle or to guide his animals.” – which pushed the sophisticated dream of “without a driver having to touch the steering wheel” in Germany far out - as the German driving license regulations refers to it. 

The same article explains the major recent change of the Vienna Convention on Road Traffic in 2014:

A first step towards realizing this vision [of self-driving cars] was made back on April 17 [2014], when the good old international treaty called “Vienna Convention on Road Traffic” saw dramatic change in its Article 8 para. 1. Pushed mainly by representatives from Germany, Italy and France, the U.N. Working Party on Road Traffic Safety agreed to let drivers take their hands off the wheel of self-driving cars, as long as the system “can be overridden or switched off by the driver.” In a nutshell: a driver must be present and able to take over the wheel at any time.

Let’s see when we can spot the first autonomous vehicle on the A9 Autobahn…. …and if the self-driving cars will have to obey a speed limit on the Autobahn - human drivers do not.