Most people today realize it is only a matter of time before self-driving vehicles revolutionize our transportation and delivery systems. While breakthroughs in self-driving technologies have thus far come from a cluster of star companies such as Google Waymo, Ford, GM, and Tesla, the important role of lawmakers and local authorities in the research and development process cannot be overlooked.
Without government permits, testing self-driving cars on public roads is almost universally illegal. The Vienna Convention on Road Traffic, an international treaty that has regulated international road traffic since 1968, stipulates that a human driver must always remain fully in control of and responsible for the behaviour of their vehicle in traffic.
European and North American countries such as the US, Germany, UK, and Netherlands were pioneers of self-driving vehicle licensing, and have introduced regulations for self-driving cars on public roads and issued autonomous testing permits. Asian countries quickly caught up and have been enacting similar legislation over the last three years.
Synced surveyed the international regulations, and here are our picks of major regions and countries that are accommodating the testing and deployment of autonomous driving technologies on their public roads. When the mass-produced Model T Ford was introduced in 1908 the US became the first country where a typical middle-class family could afford a car. Today, Uncle Sam is also a leader in the integration of self-driving technologies.
Each US State is responsible for its own autonomous driving legislation. Last year, 33 states had either passed legislation, issued executive orders, or announced initiatives to accommodate self-driving vehicles on public roads.
California is undoubtedly the top-ranked state in openness and preparedness for autonomous vehicles. Its autonomous vehicle testing regulations were introduced in September 2014 and required a driver be in the vehicle, ready to assume control. Recently, California took a step forward by allowing fully autonomous vehicles with no driver to operate on its public roads.
Fifty self-driving companies are testing their technologies in California, Fortune reports. Google’s Waymo and GM lead in autonomous miles logged: Waymo accumulated 352,545 autonomous public road miles (567,366 km) in the 12 months preceding November 2017, while GM vehicles drove 131,676 miles (211,912 km) in 2017.
Arizona meanwhile has also removed obstacles to the deployment of autonomous vehicles, cultivating an AV-friendly testing environment that now rivals California’s. In August 2015, Arizona Governor Doug Ducey signed an executive order directing agencies to “undertake any necessary steps to support the testing and operation of self-driving vehicles on public roads within Arizona.” This March, Ducey updated the executive order and gave the green light for cars without drivers to operate on public roads in Arizona. There are now over 600 self-driving cars on the state’s public roads.
Florida, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, are also leaders in the accommodation of autonomous vehicles.China is nowhere close to a regulation-friendly country for autonomous driving. Although it has prominent autonomous driving companies such as Baidu Apollo, JingChi.ai, and Pony.ai, the country got off to a slow start with legislation and permits.
Things are changing now, especially in first-tier cities. Earlier this month Shanghai issued its first self-driving licenses, allowing two automakers to test their autonomous vehicles on public roads. The tests are limited to a 5.6 km (3.5 mile) stretch of public road in the city’s Jiading District. Shanghai is China’s first Smart Network and Autonomous Driving Pilot City.
This January, the Beijing Municipal Traffic Commission announced the city’s first autonomous driving test track will be built in suburban Yizhuang. Meanwhile, Hangzhou, the home city of China’s tech giant Alibaba, will open an autonomous driving test track this year, located 1.4 km from Alibaba’s main campus. China’s autonomous vehicle industry hub of Guangzhou recently allowed Pony.ai and JingChi.ai to test vehicles in certain districts.
Last December Chongqing revealed a plan to designate a huge open road test area by 2019 that includes cities, mountains, highways, tunnels and bridges, and is enabling 5G telecommunications across the area. The local government also introduced the Chongqing Autonomous Vehicle Road Test Management Implementation Rules to regulate testing on local public roads.
Last December, the Shenzhen Bus Group’s “Smart Driving Bus System” was introduced on a dedicated 1.2 km route.Although Northern Europe does not get as much attention as the US or China when it comes to autonomous driving, countries such as Netherlands and Sweden are more likely to democratize automated transport systems nationwide than any other regions.
KPMG’s 2018 report Autonomous Vehicles Readiness Index ranks 20 countries’ preparedness for an autonomous vehicle future. The Netherlands took the top spot, outperforming the US (7th) and China (16th). KPMG praised the Netherland’s heavily-used and well-maintained road network. The country has also built almost 30,000 electric vehicle charging points and has high-quality wireless networks for transmitting data to and from autonomous vehicles.
The Netherlands’ Council of Ministers first approved autonomous vehicle road testing in 2015, and updated its bill last February to allow tests without a driver. The Dutch government is spending €90 million adapting more than 1,000 of the country’s traffic lights to enable them to communicate with autonomous vehicles.
In 2016 the Netherlands deployed WEpods in a central Dutch city. The world’s first electric driverless shuttle, WEpods can hold six people, and operate on fixed lanes across the city.Sweden is ranked 3rd in KPMG’s 2018 report. The country that gave birth to IKEA, Spotify, Ericsson and Volvo has ramped up its support for autonomous driving over the last few years.
In 2015 the Swedish government first explored self-driving vehicle testing, concluding that it was possible to carry out trials at all levels of automation on Swedish roads. The Road Transportation Authority can, as of July 2017, authorize permits and supervise trials in accordance with the law.
Last December Volvo launched its Drive Me project, which provided self-driving cars to a number of people in Gothenburg for use in their everyday lives. The project is aimed at collecting user feedback to hone Volvo’s technology.
Last November, Volvo signed a US$300 million deal with Uber to provide the ride-hailing giant with 24,000 flagship self-driving-ready Volvo XC90 SUVs.Germany is now a hotbed of autonomous vehicles as the German parliament passed a law last May that allows companies to begin testing self-driving cars on public roadways. Drivers are allowed to remove their hands from the wheel and perform simple tasks such as futzing around on smartphones while the car drives itself. However, drivers are required to remain ready to take control in order to handle possible emergencies.
The new legislation also requires a black box, a counterpart data recorder for autonomous vehicles designed to record system data and actions for review in the case of accidents.The UK is another country that has been progressive with autonomous vehicle policy and regulations. While most European countries adhere to Vienna Convention on Road Traffic, the UK is not a signatory and so is believed to have an advantage in adopting legislation to attract autonomous vehicle manufacturers and tech startups. The UK government is aiming for a wide adoption of autonomous vehicles on its roads by 2021.
In 2013, the Department for Transport allowed semi-autonomous cars to operate on lightly-used rural and suburban roads. Three years later, in her annual address the Queen herself spoke to the importance of enacting “new laws to make the UK ready to pioneer driverless cars.”
Last year, the UK government passed a bill to draw up liability and insurance policies related to autonomous vehicles. Singapore could be the first Asian country to widely adopt autonomous driving — or even the world’s first. The country has the world’s third highest population density, and the government is under pressure to revamp the transportation system.
KPMG’s 2018 report gives Singapore the maximum score on policy and regulations related to autonomous vehicles. In July 2015, the Singapore Land Transport Authority (LTA) authorized 6 km of test routes, and doubled the distance a year later. In 2017 the LTA expanded its AV test bed to neighboring areas such as the National University of Singapore, Singapore Science Parks 1 and 2, and Dover and Buona Vista, adding 55 km to existing autonomous vehicle trial routes.
Last year, the Government of Singapore passed legislation recognizing motor vehicles don’t require a human driver and regulating the operation of such vehicles on public roads. The rules exempt autonomous vehicles and their operators from existing legislation mandating a human driver must be responsible for the safe use of motor vehicles on the road.
Singapore’s supportive environment attracted Boston-based self-driving software company NuTonomy. The company, which was acquired by Delphi for US$450 million, launched a free trial autonomous taxi service in August 2016 and hopes to run an autonomous taxi service in the city-state by the end of Q2 this year.South Korea is possibly the most aggressive country in terms of government investment in autonomous vehicles. The homeland of Samsung, Hyundai and LG allows autonomous vehicles with issued licences to operate on public roads (two sections of expressways and four sections of regular roads, spanning a combined 320 kilometers), and is building an entire artificial town for autonomous vehicle testing.
Last November, the country’s Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport announced the opening of K-City, which is the largest town model ever built for self-driving car experimentation. K-City cost US$11 billion and presents 35 different driving conditions, including toll gates, pedestrian and train crossings, and even potholes and construction sites.
At the recent Winter Olympics, South Korea flexed its autonomous driving muscles, with Hyundai Motors deploying a self-driving car fleet while KT Corporation provided a self-driving shuttle service.New Zealand is an early and keen adopter of autonomous vehicles, second only to Singapore on specific policy and legislation, according to KPMG’s 2018 report.
The New Zealand government encourages the testing of semi and fully autonomous vehicles and is facilitating the early adoption of autonomous driving technology. The country has no specific legal requirements for cars to have drivers.
New Zealand recently approved an autonomous flying taxi trial for Kitty Hawk, the Silicon Valley-based startup run by Google founder Larry Page.
Journalist: Tony Peng| Editor: Michael Sarazen