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People are required for everything

According to the current legal situation, fully driverless cars are not permitted on the roads. Law professor Michael Stöber took a closer look at this and other legal peculiarities

Small blue bus on a road
© EurA AG

This 12-seater driverless bus has been serving a programmed route with 12 stops in Keitum on Sylt for a year.

Cars without drivers are not approved for road use and the legal position is clear on this. It is in line with EU law and has its basis in the Road Traffic Act in the German Road Traffic Licensing Regulation (StVZO). This means "Autonomous vehicles will only be permitted if there is a change in the law. Yet this can only be expected once the technology is really so advanced that vehicles drive reasonably safely in road traffic," assured Professor Michael Stöber from the Institute of Business and Tax Law. Within the NAF-Bus project (see box), the Kiel-based legal scholar examined the legal feasibility of using driverless buses. Currently, a steward must always be on board. This steward must be able to override the software and otherwise fulfil the same requirements as drivers of regular vehicles.

From a civil law perspective, it is always beneficial to have as many opposing parties as possible.

Michael Stöber

Of course, another legally relevant question is: who is liable for the damage if a person or property is injured by a driverless vehicle? "Some people fear a liability loophole here, as there is no driver who holds personal liability in the event of actual fault," said Stöber. However, the expert is of the opinion that there is no liability loophole even without personal liability.

First, the vehicle owner still holds liability. Plus, product liability pursuant to the Product Liability Act takes the place of driver liability. "This is liability independent of fault. That means that whoever produced the vehicle is liable if damage is caused by faults in the vehicle." In theory, product liability already exists. However, it plays only a small role with regular vehicles, as road accidents are generally attributable to human error and not to product defects.

As the primary errors expected in driverless vehicles are software related, it would be desirable, according to Stöber, for both the software manufacturer and the vehicle manufacturer to bear liability for damage. "From a civil law perspective, it is always beneficial to have as many opposing parties as possible. If one opposing party is insolvent, for instance, you can turn to the other one." Whether software errors fall under the scope of the Product Liability Act, however, remains to be clarified. The legal basis for this is the EU Product Liability Directive, which is currently undergoing revision. "In the course of this revision, the Product Liability Directive is to be amended so that it is more suitable for driverless vehicles," explained Stöber.

Overall, autonomous vehicles barely differ from conventional vehicles in legal terms. Stöber said "I don’t think that many new regulations are necessary. It makes sense to amend the Product Liability Directive but that is already happening." Two points are important for operating driverless vehicles on public roads and spaces: a steward and a special permit are required, as there is currently no type approval for this kind of vehicle.

Author: Kerstin Nees

NAF-Bus project

The NAF-Bus project looks at “demand-led autonomous buses”. The NAF-Bus project began in July 2017 and aims to advance the innovative concept of on-demand local public transport, a public transit system with no fixed timetables. It is funded by the Federal Ministry of Transport and Infrastructure with around €2.38 million. The electrically powered NAF minibuses are in use in various test scenarios on private land belonging to the Schleswig-Holstein GreenTEC campus in Enge-Sande and on public roads in the District of North Frisia and the island of Sylt. The tests are examining the benefits and effects of driverless vehicles in public transport. Working groups from Computer Science, Geography and Law at Kiel University are involved. (ne)