autonomous cars

German Transport Minister Alexander Dobrindt, in a 2012 photo.

We’re all familiar with the black boxes that are built into airplanes, which show what went wrong after an incident. Now, Reuters reports, Germany is working on legislation requiring cars that are even partially autonomous to have black boxes.

The announcement by German Transport Minister Alexander Dobrindt came after the driver of a Tesla Model S was killed in a car accident that happened when the car was in Autopilot. That crash happened May 7 in Williston, Florida, but was not in the news until late June, according to the Associated Press.

Making Autonomous Tech as Safe as Possible

News of the Tesla crash has put regulators and automakers on notice to make autonomous technology as safe as possible. Dobrindt’s proposal will require drivers of cars with autonomous technology to stay behind the wheel so they can take control in case of emergency. But until an emergency occurs, “drivers will not have to pay attention to traffic or concentrate on steering.”

The proposal will require that the black boxes be able to record when the auto system:

  • Is active
  • When the human driver actually is driving
  • When the technology asks the driver to take over.

Jonathan M. Gitlin writes for Ars Technica:

Arguably, Tesla has shown the way here. The company’s electric vehicles are all continually in communication with the company’s servers, and it’s not afraid to pull data logs in the event of a crash to determine exactly what state the car was in at the time.

The Transport Ministry will be forwarding its proposal to other German ministries later this summer. Germany wants its auto manufacturers — Daimler, Volkswagen, BMW, and Audi AG — to be known worldwide for their self-driving vehicles.

First Fully Autonomous Car to Market?

In a related news item, Jim Holder writes for Autocar that Audi A8 is looking to be the first all-autonomous car to come to market, in 2017. Eventually the system will also be available in Audi models A7, A6, and Q8. Word is they’ll have a new artificial intelligence system that will have the ability to learn a driver’s behavior and predict what the driver will do. For example, it might learn where a driver goes and program those locations into the navigation system.

Audi’s all-autonomous technology is dubbed “Traffic Jam Assist” and will work at speeds of up to 60 mph in heavy traffic, without any help from the driver. There also will be a feature that will park the car when the driver is outside the car and controlling it via a smartphone app.

It’s believed that Audi will accept liability for any accidents that happen when the car is in self-driving mode, but that the driver will be responsible when the car is in semi-autonomous mode. Because studies have found that many aircraft “incidents” take place when pilots don’t know when the planes are in autonomous mode, Audi has designed a system that will let the driver know clearly when the car is in Traffic Jam Assist mode.

The Audi system will use a camera to observe the driver and will drive the car off the road altogether to stop if the driver is not taking control in an emergency. This fail-safe system will be triggered, for example, should a driver become ill or climb out of the driver’s seat.

Image by J. Patrick Fischer, used under a Creative Commons license.