Autonomous vehicles: How 7 countries are handling the regulatory landscape

As self-driving cars continue to develop, so are the laws surrounding safety, liability, privacy and security.

Autonomous vehicle development is shifting into gear, inspiring many countries to create laws and regulations associated with the tech, a Dentons report found. These rules are meant to address safety, liability, privacy and security related to the new-wave automobiles. 

Australia, Canada, China, Germany, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States have started government-level discourse around autonomous vehicles, even though self-driving cars aren't yet deployed at scale. 

SEE: Special feature: Autonomous vehicles and the enterprise (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

"Government regulation is definitely needed," said Eric Tanenblatt, global chair of public policy and regulation at Dentons.

"We're talking about a paradigm shift in the automotive industry. And there are so many areas that are touched by autonomous vehicles," Tanenblatt said. "There's the whole angle of safety; there's the whole angle of insurance and data privacy. There's a number of ethical issues, and it's something that is new."

Because of this newness, different countries are at different stages of the regulation process. Regardless of what stage a country is at, it is crucial all governments are taking note of autonomous vehicles, Tanenblatt said.

"There's so many issues and you have to peel back the onions," Tanenblatt said. "To countries that are starting to focus on this, look at what other countries have been addressing. 

"Also look at every aspect of the autonomous vehicle ecosystem and either enact policy, amend policy or [assess] if current regulations would fit for autonomous vehicles," he said.

To help countries either start or continue developing autonomous vehicle regulations, the Dentons Global Guide to Autonomous Vehicles 2020 report explores the measures seven key countries are already taking. 

Regulatory landscapes across the world 

Discussions about autonomous vehicles are moving quickly in the US, China and Germany, Tanenblatt said, but many other countries are also seeing momentum. 

1. Australia

In Australia, each state and territory has its own road safety law, which can result in some inconsistencies across state lines. To help unify these road safety laws, the National Transport Commission (NTC) introduced the Australian Road Rules (ARRs) for nationwide implementation, the report found. 

The NTC is analyzing options and concerns related to future autonomous vehicle integration, with plans to change driving laws to support the technology. 

2. Canada

Canada has autonomous vehicle regulations set at all three levels of government: Federal, provincial and territorial, and municipal. Currently, most regulatory activity is focused at the federal level, in the provinces of Ontario, British Columbia and Quebec, as well as in a few municipalities, according to the report. 

The report found that Canada is excited about the future of autonomous driving, but also cautious in regards to safety. 

3. China

One of the countries at the forefront of autonomous vehicle testing, China has released road  safety laws that cover driverless vehicles nationwide. Local governments also released their own regulations, according to the report. 

On the national level, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, Ministry of Public Security and Ministry of Transport created the Regulations on the Administration of Road Testing of Autonomous Vehicles. 

These regulations are helping to progress the transformation and innovation of transportation, as well as regulate road testing of autonomous vehicles, the report found.

As stated in the report, "These regulations are part of a broader effort on the part of the Chinese government to develop the autonomous driving industry as a part of the country's overall plan to reorient its economy towards a more high-tech industrial model that includes autonomous vehicles and related technology." 

4. Germany

Home to many large automotive manufacturers, German is another leader in autonomous transportation, Tanenblatt said. The country has a strategy in place for autonomous vehicles at the national level, but must further expand these frameworks for it to be successful at the country level, according to the report.  

5. New Zealand

The New Zealand government is on board with the testing of semi and fully autonomous vehicles but doesn't have any specific regulations associated with self-driving transportation, the report found.  

While regulation doesn't exist for autonomous vehicles, there aren't any laws restricting the  testing of this technology either. For these vehicles to be successful, however, regulations are necessary, according to Tanenblatt. 

6. United Kingdom

The UK government is a large proponent of automated vehicles, working to bring driverless cars to roads by 2021. The government believes these cars can make transport safer, easier and more accessible, the report found. 

The UK's Department of Transport has control over driverless vehicle testing and deployment and is working to redesign current road networks to handle the tech, according to the report. 

7. United States

While the US may be one of the furthest along in automated vehicle testing, it is also the most behind in regulation. The US doesn't have any federal regulatory framework in place. 

Tanenblatt said he is most familiar with the regulatory status of the US, compared to other countries. He emphasized how important federal regulation is to successful autonomous vehicle deployment. 

"The federal government's going to have to step in and put some broad regulations in place,  because you can't have this patchwork of regulations when you're dealing with something that crosses state lines," Tanenblatt said.  

"There are a number of states that have already passed laws or governors who have signed executive orders," Tanenblatt said, "But the more it happens, the more it's going to force the federal government at some point to step in and put some broad parameters." 

Future of autonomous vehicles 

While rumors of autonomous vehicle deployment have existed for years, Tanenblatt said it would realistically be seen widely on the roads in the next 10 years. That timeline may seem long, but the industry is actually moving very fast, he said. 

"A key indicator of how quickly this is all happening is the movement towards electric vehicles; we are seeing more and more auto manufacturers moving towards the production of electric vehicles," Tanenblatt said. 

This shift is mainly due to the improved battery life and declining costs of batteries. These cars are also becoming cheaper to manufacture, because they have significantly less parts than a combustible engine vehicle, he said. 

"In addition to battery costs declining, the technology that's involved in autonomous vehicles such as the LIDAR cameras and the computing are declining dramatically in price as well," Tanenblatt said. "If the batteries are cheaper and the autonomous vehicle technology becomes cheaper, then the market's moving in that direction."

Tanenblatt predicted that autonomous vehicles will first surface in fleet vehicles and trucks. 

As for fleet vehicles, Waymo has been testing driverless taxis in the Phoenix, autonomous shuttles have been tested in France and in the UK, and Singapore is also looking into self-driving taxis, Tanenblatt said. 

"For autonomous trucks, there'll be what's known as platooning, where you have a driver in the first truck and then the trucks behind it don't have a driver; they're just autonomous," Tanenblatt said. 

Many autonomous vehicles are already being tested in controlled environments, but as more countries focus on actual deployment of these vehicles, the test scenarios may soon turn into reality. 

For more, check out The top 3 companies in autonomous vehicles and self-driving cars on ZDNet.

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