Self-driving cars face type approval standards hurdle

Audi's new A8 may be the only series production car capable of piloting itself along highways while the driver watches the on-board TV, but it may take until the end of the decade before countries can agree on how to validate and approve its Level 3 self-driving system.

The German government was the first worldwide to broadly legalize self-driving cars with a new law that came into effect June 21 that allowed automated driving as long as a driver is behind the wheel to assume control of the vehicle when necessary.

Audi managers say this is only half of the equation: the other is drafting a set of standards that allow the Level 3 systems like its "Traffic Jam Pilot" to be type approved for market. And it could be 2019 before that day comes. "We took the second step [in Germany] before really understanding how the first step will look," said an executive.

Generally, automakers selling cars in the European Union are required to submit to regulators detailed technical schematics for everything from door hinges to electronic stability control systems in a process known as homologation, before a new feature can be launched throughout the bloc.

This is where the United Nations plays a key role. A global regulatory framework is the responsibility of the UN's Economic Commission for Europe's World Forum for Harmonization of Vehicle Regulations (abbreviated as WP.29). In some cases, it determines type approvals, in others only non-binding global technical regulations (GTRs) depending on how big of a consensus can be reached across over 100 nations.

"If you look at the glass on your windshield, on your tires, or other parts of your car, you’ll find a logo with an encircled 'E' – this is the sign that it has been certified. All these components are approved according to UN vehicle regulations," said a regulatory official involved in the process.

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