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Roadmap and milestones of German laws for autonomous vehicles

Spirit Legal partner Peter Hense on German laws for autonomous vehicles. What’s the goal? What will the new act regulate? What's the timetable?
Image: Unsplash

There’s no stopping the automation of vehicle functions. OEMs’ technologies might not be progressing by leaps and bounds, but they are still evolving at a rapid pace. Not a week goes by when we don’t hear about things like new sensors, new players like Apple Car, or Zoox’s vision of autonomous vehicles.

Automation is still a far cry from autonomy. Vehicles of different automation levels are already on our roads, taking care of an impressive array of features– and they’re here to stay. Sooner or later, however, autonomous vehicles will begin impacting our lives in the same way as the original automobile has since the late 19th century.

In order to ensure interoperability in our globalised world, there is a need for uniform and harmonised rules at the international level – whether for technical specifications, for the necessary adaptations on public roads, or for specific operational scenarios, such as shuttle services.

The German Federal Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure (under Federal Minister Scheuer) is now planning another milestone with its new legislative proposal on autonomous driving and hopes to pave the way for autonomous vehicles to take to the country’s roads. The draft act is currently still subject to several consultation processes, with the legislation expected to be passed in mid-2021.

We have summarised and translated the roadmap of the legislative process as well as the key points of the new act for you below:

What’s the goal?

On the one hand, the legislative proposal aims to introduce a set of rules that will enable “Level 5” autonomous vehicles to drive regularly on public roads in Germany by 2022, thus handing the country a substantial lead as a pioneer in this field. What is more, it will mean that autonomous vehicles are no longer a thing of fiction, bringing them out of research and into everyday use. To this end, the proposed act focuses specifically on regulating the rights and obligations of those persons involved in actually operating vehicles with autonomous driving functions.

It also takes up the challenge of introducing rules for complex areas of law, such as data processing in vehicles that use autonomous and automated driving functions. As an interim solution, the act constitutes a major contribution on the long road to establishing international standards, which are necessary to gradually close the legal gaps that still exist in this area due to the lack of harmonised legal provisions.


The draft law is currently still undergoing a number of departmental consultations and is expected to be passed by mid-2021. Since the act includes technical provisions, which could in turn lead to certain trade barriers within the meaning of the Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade (TBT), it will also have to go through the EU notification procedure.

What will the new act regulate?

In particular, the act will regulate the following key points, which are indispensable if autonomous vehicles are ever to be allowed on public roads:

  • Technical requirements for vehicles that use autonomous driving functions, and the conditions for their approval
  • Legal requirements for data protection as well as the obligations for those persons involved in operating the vehicles, and
  • Operational scenarios and expanding the use of autonomous vehicles, such as for shuttle services, hub-to-hub transport, dual-mode vehicles, etc.

Summary paper: Act on Autonomous Driving

Link to original article in German: Federal Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure, available at: https://www.bmvi.de/SharedDocs/DE/Artikel/DG/gesetz-zum-autonomen-fahren.html, accessed on: 30 October 2020

German Federal Minister Andreas Scheuer on autonomous driving

Federal Minister Andreas Scheuer: “Germany will be the international leader in autonomous driving. We are the first country in the world to bring autonomous vehicles out of research laboratories and onto roads – as part of regular traffic. We now want vehicles that independently transport goods from the factory to the distribution centre. Just like autonomous cars and buses, which transport passengers safely and in line with their needs. I’m certain that in the next five to ten years, the way we move will change more than it has for many decades. We are already establishing the framework for this.”

Federal Minister Scheuer also made the following comments:

Scheuer: “Germany will be the world leader in autonomous driving. That’s why we’re moving fast: our new act will make us an international pioneer and put an end to complicated individual permits. We now want autonomous cars and buses that take passengers to their destination as needed – and then park themselves in the car park independently. This will be not just convenient, but safe. Nine out of ten accidents are caused by human error. Mostly because people are distracted. In contrast, self-driving cars are controlled by a computer. It can’t be distracted or get tired.” (dpa, 27 October 2020)

Scheuer: “It is precisely through this approach that we want to become the number one innovation location. Our proposed act will make the German automotive industry the world leader in autonomous driving.” (Handelsblatt, 10 September 2020)


Germany plans to take a leading role in autonomous driving. In order to make the most of the great potential of autonomous and connected driving, the Federal Government wants to drive research and development forward and thus make the mobility of the future more versatile, safer, more environmentally friendly and more comfortable.

The Federal Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure (BMVI) is working intensively to further improve the necessary framework: The Act on Automated Driving (amending the Road Traffic Act) entered into force on 21 June 2017. At the heart of this were changes to the rights and obligations of drivers using automated driving functions. Specifically, this means that automated systems (Level 3) may take over the task of driving under certain conditions. However, a driver is still necessary.

Now comes the next step: with the new Act on Autonomous Driving, we want to create the legal framework for autonomous vehicles (Level 5) to be able to regularly drive on public roads in determined operational areas – across the country.

  • This would make Germany the first country in the world to bring driverless vehicles out of research and into everyday use.
  • The goal is to have vehicles with autonomous driving functions in regular road traffic operations by 2022.

Flexibility is a key aspect of the new act: it is aimed at facilitating the operation of driverless vehicles for as many operational scenarios as possible. Different use cases will not be finally regulated in advance, but merely locally limited to a determined operational area. This would render individual permits, exceptions and other requirements – such as the need for a driver who is always ready to intervene for safety reasons – unnecessary.

Operational scenarios include, but are not limited to:

  • Shuttle services
  • People movers
  • Hub-to-hub transport
  • Demand-oriented services during off-peak times
  • First-mile or last-mile carriage of passengers and/or goods
  • Dual-mode vehicles such as automated valet parking (AVP).

The matters to be regulated by the proposed act include:

  • Technical requirements for the construction, qualities and equipment of vehicles with autonomous driving functions
  • Examination and procedure for the granting of an operating permit for vehicles with autonomous driving functions by the Federal Motor Transport Authority (KBA)
  • Provisions relating to the obligations of persons involved in the operation of vehicles with autonomous driving functions
  • Provisions relating to data processing during the operation of vehicles with autonomous driving functions
  • Enabling the (retrospective) activation of automated and autonomous driving functions in type-approved vehicles (“dormant functions”)
  • Furthermore, adaptation and creation of uniform rules to enable the testing of automated and autonomous vehicles.

At the same time, the automotive industry should intensify its efforts in the area of autonomous driving. As agreed at the third meeting of the “concerted action for mobility” initiative on 8 September 2020, the industry intends to thoroughly exploit the testing opportunities in Germany in order to make automated and autonomous vehicles something that people “can experience” – especially in rural areas.

International legislation

The Act on Autonomous Driving is an interim solution until harmonised provisions are in place at the international level. With a view to harmonised markets and standards, Germany has a great interest in the creation of overarching rules. The Federal Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure (BMVI) is determined to continue developing the legal framework at EU and UNECE level.

Germany is already an international driver of innovation: thanks in part to Germany’s initiative, the Level-3 lane-keeping system (ALKS – Automated Lane Keeping System), which can for example be used in traffic jams, was approved at UN level for use on motorways at speeds of up to 60 kilometres per hour. Germany is also actively involved in current work to extend the UN Regulation on ALKS. The aim is to enable a speed extension up to 130 kilometres per hour as well as the system’s lane-changing capability.

Further timetable

  • Following the departmental consultations currently under way, the draft bill will be submitted to the Länder and associations for consultation.
  • The act is expected to be passed by mid-2021.
  • An EU notification procedure is also necessary.

Backgroudn to levels of vehicle automation:

  • Partially automated driving (Level 2): This is the state of the art today. The applications that the car can handle are becoming increasingly complex – even if the driver still has to keep a constant eye on the system. These applications include motorway assistance systems. A motorway assistance system can take over automatic lateral and longitudinal guidance up to a certain speed and within certain limits (lane keeping possible).
  • Highly automated driving (Level 3): Cars take over driving tasks – such as braking, steering, lane changing or overtaking – autonomously for defined applications, e.g. when driving on motorways. If a situation can no longer be handled automatically, the driver is prompted to take over. The technical regulation required for Level 3 was adopted at UN level in June 2020 and is expected to enter into force in early 2021 after a six-month notification period.
  • Fully automated driving (Level 4): As in Level 3, the system takes complete control for defined applications and then no longer needs to be monitored. If it is necessary to leave the automation mode, the system prompts the driver to take over. If there is no reaction, the system can (unlike Level 3) independently bring the vehicle to the minimum risk state (for example, by stopping on the hard shoulder).
  • Autonomous driving (Level 5): The vehicle moves without a driver. The person becomes a passenger and no longer needs to be involved in the driving process.

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