Are Children Legally Allowed to Use Autonomous Vehicles?

The last post showed that autonomous vehicle users in all likelihood will not need a license anymore. The reason for this is that it would significantly decrease the usability of an autonomous vehicle if the legislator requested such driver’s licenses. In addition, it would be in conflict with the basic idea of autonomous driving – to make individual motorized mobility available for (almost) the entire community.

Thus, it can be assumed that there will be no standard of a driver’s license or any other test imposed by the administration to allow the use of autonomous cars. There will still be some regulation apart from driver’s licenses which users of autonomous vehicles will have to take into consideration.

An important legal issue will be the use of autonomous vehicles by children and teenagers.

The first thing to recognize is the following: There is a big application area for self-driving cars in the context of transportation of minors. Parents send their children to kindergartens or schools on working days. Even though there are short range public transportation services in most cities, not everybody uses them.

After school children usually visit sport clubs, music schools or friends. It is not unusual for minors to travel long distances for these activities. But not every town offers public transportation services, especially in non-urban areas.

In these cases, the parents, grandparents or siblings have to act as “taxi driver” for the minors. This huge driving service could be taken over by autonomous vehicles. By using a self-driving car, the parent taking care of the children would save a lot of time which he could use for his own job or simply for his free time. The benefits for the community are obvious.

Are children allowed to travel on their own when using autonomous vehicles?

But in the context of children there is one main legal question: How old must the child or teenager be in order to travel by this new type of vehicle on his own? With this question, the problem arises whether and if so, how parents are liable for a violation of their duty of responsibility.

There is both good news and bad news for parents. The good news first: If one thinks about his child riding a bike, taking the bus, going by train or traveling by plane, there are already a lot of cases which require the parent or parents to make a decision on whether to allow his child to travel on his own. Best practice solutions in the aforementioned scenarios can probably be transferred to autonomous driving.

What kind of laws apply to children using the autonomous vehicle?

However, the bad news is: There is no straight answer. Indeed family law is a part of the German Civil Code and § 1626 of the German Civil Code rules that parents have the obligation of parental care, but there is no rule applicable directly to the use of transportation services by children. In general, the law wants to protect children against any type of harm. Therefore, it directs this responsibility to their parents.

Within the German Civil Code, there are further regulations which might give some indication regarding the use of autonomous vehicles by children. For example, §§ 104 et seqq. of the German Civil Code state that children under the age of 7 years are not legally competent, and children between 6 and 18 years of age are presumed legally competent only to a limited extent.

As a consequence, minors cannot enter into legally binding contracts by their own. However, there is one exception in § 110 of the German Civil Code – nicknamed the “pocket-money-paragraph” – which states that children can enter into a contract if they can fully satisfy their contractual obligations merely by spending the pocket money they have received from their parents for their free use.

But, the aforementioned paragraphs concern contract law and not the use of vehicles. They can only give us a general indication. In the same manner parents grant pocket money to their child, they could give the child the opportunity to use an autonomous car if they consider their child to be able to handle the use. Therefore, it depends on the personal abilities of the child and how the parents assess it.

Furthermore, § 832 of the German Civil Code gives us more information. It specifies the liability of parents for violating their responsibility regarding the safety of their children. If the parents allow their child to use a self-driving car, they could be held responsible for endangerment of the child. In the context of § 832 of the German Civil Code, the courts have ruled on the question of when a violation is present.

In general, the parents fulfil their responsibility if they do everything necessary to ensure the safety of their child with regard to the specific circumstances of the individual case and the age, character and nature of the child. Consequently, parents have to make an individual decision for every single case of the use of transportation systems by their child. This could be applied to autonomous vehicle cases accordingly.

Finally, it is likely that children could use self-driving cars even before turning 18 years old. However, the minimum age could vary because it depends on the respective child’s abilities and maturity. The parents have to make the decision in light of their potential liability for neglecting the responsibility for their child in mind.

Would you allow a self-driving car to take your child to school? If yes, share your reasons in our comment section

Please note that this article expresses the opinions of the author and does not reflect the views of Move Forward.

Three Major Differences in the Approach of Autonomous Car Between the U.S. and Germany

If one wishes to understand what is brewing for autonomous cars, one needs to visit the center of the autonomous car research scene, meaning the Silicon Valley.

A lot of technology company headquarters or at least some of their research centers are based in the Valley. It is common knowledge that the Valley is one of the most innovative areas of the world.

But this is not the only reason for the high concentration of companies which research in the field of autonomous driving in this area: The Californian government plays an important role in this development, as well. It supports the technological development by creating a conducive legal background for autonomous driving in California.

California was one of the first states worldwide which approved autonomous test drives in public traffic in 2012. Obviously, one important element in the race for the development of the first fully autonomous car was sponsored by the government.

As a consequence, the manufacturers gather in the Valley for testing their cars. In contrast to this helpful legal basis in California, politicians in Germany have merely expressed their plans to establish testing zones on specific parts of the German motorway like the A9 or the A81. 

Hopefully, they will extend their approval in the future, because the manufacturers need to test their cars in diverse public traffic situations and not only in the relatively simple motorway environment.

Research progression of the USA when it comes to autonomous cars

In order to detect and compare these differences between Californian and German law and to experience the different approach in the realization process of autonomous driving one does not need to look far.

The differences between autonomous driving in Germany and California are not limited to the support of administration and government.

Research at the legal foundation of autonomous driving in California and the United States in the Robert Crown Law Library of Stanford University reveals: At first sight, there are more research papers in number and they are much more detailed than the ones in Germany.

Altogether, more authors seem to participate in the discussions about autonomous driving and the law. Hence, from an academic perspective Germany has fallen behind in the competition for the best location for the future of autonomous cars.

Further, there is a difference in attitude referring to autonomous driving in  U.S. society. Public opinion on average seems more positive about the launch of autonomous driving cars in the future than that of Germans. This is not surprising, as the people living in the Valley mostly work for technology companies and are therefore amenable to new technologies.

All in all, the above-mentioned three distinctions between Germany and California could make a major difference in the competition for the new technology. To change this, we have to accelerate and recess the discussion about the new technologies in Germany, ­ otherwise competing states will win.

What do you think: Will Silicon Valley or rather Germany/Europe have the lead in developing Autonomous Driving?

Please note that this article expresses the opinions of the author and does not reflect the views of Move Forward.

Who is Legally Allowed to Use Autonomous Vehicles?

Currently, the discussion on autonomous vehicles is focused on safety and security aspects. “How do autonomous vehicles decide about life and death?” is the question of interest. Surely, the dangers of the new technology are an important issue, but it has already been mentioned that the likelihood of dilemma situations arising in practice is rather remote.

Then again, there will be situations which occur constantly in everybody’s day-to-day life. The owner of an autonomous vehicle will have to decide who may use it and who may not. At first glance, there should not be any major difficulties in this.

It is a self-driving car and therefore apparently everybody should be able to use it. On closer inspection, however, the situation becomes less clear and more ambiguous.

As a starting point, it should be taken for granted that people with a driver’s license may use self-driving cars. However, autonomous vehicles do not require the presence of a driver due to their design.

For that reason, legal professionals as well as academics are pushing for a change of the international regulatory regime, in particular the “Vienna Convention of Road and Traffic from 1968”. But what comes next?

Does society need user-regulations for autonomous cars?

In general, a user needs a driver’s license for driving a conventional car. Cars can pose great dangers for people and property. For that reason, the legislator strives to ensure that drivers control the cars they drive through the dictation of obligatory driver-licenses.

In contrast, riding a bicycle usually occurs at a lower speed than driving a car and does not bear the same accident risk, in particular for other road users and concerning extent of the accident. Consequently, obtaining a license is not a requirement for riding a bike.

This example shows a basic principle of traditional traffic: If someone is in control of a vehicle which brings about a greater risk of major accidents in opposite to riding a bike, he or she has to fulfill additional requirements. In comparison, a person using an autonomous driving system has no means of influencing the way the autonomous vehicle moves ahead even though the vehicle bears a destructive risk.

Thus, with respect to risk management there is no need for user-regulation. It is the piloting software that should be regulated instead.

Considering the future use case, autonomous driving will be more like a taxi or bus ride. With respect to these modes of transportation, passengers get in and out and determine the direction of travel by telling the driver where to go or selecting a bus with the desired destination.

In both cases, the user does not need a license and cannot influence the operation of the vehicle. Taking this into consideration, there is still no need for driver-regulation in this future scenario.

Traffic Laws should only apply to a person considered a “road user”

This conclusion corresponds with the fundamental principle stated in article 2 paragraph 1 of the Basic Law for the Federal Republic of Germany which, in general, guarantees personal freedom. In essence, everybody is free to do whatever he or she wants to do, free of any regulation as long as he or she does not interfere with the rights of others.

This necessarily entails essential restrictions. In traffic situations road users typically pass each other. If the user of an autonomous vehicle is to be treated as a road user, he or she will have to abide by the general rules for road users.

In this context, the German Higher Regional Court of Nurnberg has held that a person who does not have an impact on the traffic is not to be considered a road user. This should hold true for an intoxicated user of an autonomous vehicle who is merely a passenger inside the self-driving car.

Furthermore, if and when the intoxicated person tries to drive the car and thus takes control thereof, or enters or leaves it, he or she may have an impact on other road users and thus has to abide by the laws applicable to drivers or road users, such as §§ 315c (endangering road traffic), 316 (driving while under the influence of drink and drugs) and 323a (committing offences in a senselessly drunken state) of the German Criminal Code or § 25 German Road Traffic Regulations (in relation to the use of walkways and roads by pedestrians).

In conclusion, traffic laws should only apply to a person traveling in an autonomous vehicle if he or she ought to be considered a road user (i.e., a pedestrian or a driver). We found that autonomous car users who behave properly are not drivers or road users as long as they do not manipulate the autonomous vehicle and therefore there is no need for further user-regulation.

This means a significant improvement of availability of car-based mobility for people without license in the future. However, even then restrictions may apply, for example to children or persons which are mentally incompetent. These cases will be examined in a following post.

Share your opinion in our comment section: Would you use carsharing more often if the vehicles are autonomous?

Please note that this article expresses the opinions of the author and does not reflect the views of Move Forward.

Ethical dilemmas of autonomous driving from a criminal law point of view

Currently, the discussions about autonomous driving are mainly governed by two topics: safety issues and the question on how to decide ethical dilemmas. From a public point of view, it is unsettling that an autonomous car will decide on saving lives because dilemmas affect moral judgments. With autonomous cars in place, mankind may not be facing any unknown danger as there are already rules in the existing law to govern ethical situations. These rules should not be ignored in the context of autonomous driving.

Firstly, the process of determining the decision-maker is subject to a misconception. In fact, the machine is not the one making any decision about life or death. An autonomous car will only operate in the way its engineers and programmers intended it to function. Thus, its creators are the ones making a decision.

Secondly, there is none but one dilemma case. For example, an autonomous car ¬ being unable to avoid the not-at-fault accident¬ drives towards a person. Even if the car brakes, it will hit the person in front of it, because of the person’s sudden appearance.

The only thinkable alternative might be for the machine to change its ordinary course to spare that person’s life, but in doing so, has to sacrifice the life of another person, for example the life of its passenger or an innocent bystander, who had not been in peril of his life to this point.

So, whose life should be sacrificed? And who should be the person to decide on the outcome of situations like these?

Solution existing within the German law

Taking into account a criminal law point of view, an answer might be found in the existing German law. In the scenario described above, the autonomous car could be seen as a weapon used to commit homicide pursuant to section 212 of the German Criminal Code (Strafgesetzbuch) if its programmer has envisaged a situation as described above and is responsible for a corresponding programming. If he decided to spare a person’s life by ending that of another, he could be held criminally liable.

It has to be recognized that a new danger is created if the autonomous car changes its direction towards an innocent bystander. The programmer sets a new line of action knowing the innocent bystander will be hit in a life-threatening way. He could be prosecuted for homicide, but might be justified. However, this is not undisputed.

In order for his action (i.e. the programming of the autonomous car) to be justified, a comparison between the life of the person in front of the autonomous car before the accident and that of the innocent bystander would have to be drawn by lawyers and judges.

Obviously, life cannot be measured by value, for example by way of age or health. Specifically, no one knows the fate of a person and what his future would have been if the accident had never happened to him.

Therefore, a fair and reasonable decision can never be made. Articles 1 para. 1, 2 para. 2 of the German Constitution (Grundgesetz) protects human life without exception. If the programmer decided on whose life to take and this person’s life was not in danger before the car departed from the course it was taking which would have led to impacting upon the first victim, he cannot be justified.

What should community take into account?

We have to accept that autonomous cars pose a danger just like normal cars, ships, planes or atomic power plants. The positive aspect is that all these things have brought about great development for individuals and society. There will always be accidents as was the case in the past.

Manufacturers and researchers can react by building safe autonomous systems with predictable behavior. They have to work on providing better technologies than the previous ones in order to increase general welfare.

Manufacturers and legislators have to decrease critical situations, both with safe technology and clear legal ruling. In this case, society would be placed in a position to bear the risk. As described above, a solution can be found for most cases within the scope of other legal discussions.

We only have to transfer the solutions found in discussions from the past and the present day and then communicate them effectively to society.

Tell us your opinion: Do you think autonomous cars will save more lives?

Please note that this article expresses the opinions of the author and does not reflect the views of Move Forward.