Legal revisions planned for self-driving vehicles / Obligations of drivers likely to be eased

The Yomiuri ShimbunThe National Police Agency has started studies to revise the Road Traffic Law, aimed at the practical introduction of Level 3 primarily self-driving vehicles.

The NPA plans to ease the driver’s obligation to ensure safe driving when the vehicle is under the self-driving system’s control. The vehicle manufacturer will be held criminally responsible for an accident caused by defects in the system.

As the government plans to realize practical use of Level 3 autonomous driving vehicles in 2020, the agency is planning to come up with a course of legal regulations this fiscal year.

Under international standards, self-driving is categorized into six levels from Level 0, in which all driving is done by a human driver, to Level 5, in which all driving is done by the system. In Japan, up to Level 2 vehicles are on the market, in which a semiautonomous system partially controls operations such as braking.

In Level 3, the system operates the vehicle under normal circumstances, but when the conditions exceed the capacity of the system — such as in bad weather or driving at high speed — it warns the driver via sound or other means to take control of the vehicle.

Article 70 of the Road Traffic Law stipulates the obligation for safe driving, saying that the driver must control the vehicle’s steering wheel, brakes and other equipment in a consistent manner. Violation of this can lead to imprisonment of up to three months or a fine of up to ¥50,000.

Under the current law, the driver would bear criminal responsibility when accidents or violations of the law occur under the autonomous driving system’s control.

In tandem with the practical use of Level 3 vehicles, the agency plans to ease drivers’ obligations to ensure safe driving and is considering stipulating explicitly that switching control from the system to the driver must be done in a swift manner when the switch is necessary.

The agency also is studying stipulating an obligation to install devices that record driving data to determine whether the driver or the system was in control of the car in the case of an accident or other event.

Not only automakers but also information technology and other companies have participated in the development of self-driving vehicles. If the drivers’ obligation is eased under the law, the automakers or other firms involved in the development could be held criminally responsible in the event of a serious accident caused by obvious system failure.

In this case, the NPA is considering not imposing charges under the Law on Punishment of Acts Inflicting Death or Injury on Others by Driving a Motor Vehicle, but imposing charges of professional negligence resulting in injury or death under the Penal Code.

As to the use of mobile phones while driving, which is banned by the law, some members of an expert panel of the NPA said their use can be allowed while a vehicle is under the system’s control. The agency will continue studying what extent of nondriving acts can be allowed under an automated driving system’s control. Speech

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