BMW and Mercedes-Benz are among automakers set to benefit from a regulatory change that paves the way for the introduction of “eyes-off” technology in production cars as early as next year.
A United Nations standard-setting body has agreed to adopt the first set of regulations for a Level 3 driving function called Automated Lane Keeping System (ALKS).
The system enables a car to steer itself at speeds of up to 60 kph (37 mph) within a lane without any human supervision. It allows drivers frustrated by congestion on highways the chance to take their eyes off the road and let the car handle navigating tedious stop-and-go traffic.
Current Level 2 “hands-off” assistance systems such as Tesla’s Autopilot can steer on their own at much higher speeds but a driver must be ready to intervene at any moment when alerted by warnings to place his or her hands back on the wheel.
The new regulatory framework means BMW can offer “eyes-off” automated driving in its iNEXT flagship electric SUV that arrives next year.
BMW welcomed the change and confirmed that the iNEXT will launch with Level 3 features.
“It’s a first step toward providing a legal framework for automated driving,” a BMW spokesman told Automotive News Europe.
BMW has previously said the iNEXT was developed for eyes-off driving at speeds of at least 130 kph (81 mph) on multi-lane highways where national regulations and laws allowed the function.
Mercedes-Benz said the framework will now enable “a regular type approval process with greater legal certainty.”
Mercedes has targeted eyes-off autonomy for its new-generation S-Class upper-premium sedan, which launches later this year.
Audi said that the regulatory change has come too late for it to reverse the decision not to equip a face-lift of its A8 upper-premium sedan with Level 3 technology. Audi developed the world’s first eyes-off system in its latest-generation A8 in 2017, but the technology was never activated because of regulatory hurdles.
The regulatory change will also benefit suppliers that are developing self-driving technology.
Robert Bosch said autonomous driving is a strategic business area for the company because regulatory development “is highly relevant” both for passenger cars and commercial vehicles.
“We have all the necessary hardware and software in-house to offer a Level 3 system if the customer asks,” a Bosch spokesman said.
UNECE’s World Forum for Harmonization of Vehicle Regulations, which drafted the regulation under the leadership of Germany and Japan, said it is the first binding international regulation on Level 3 vehicle automation.
UNECE said in a news release that it expects “a broad adoption of these regulations” from governments.
“A number of major automotive manufacturers are expected to apply the regulation upon entry into force,” UNECE also said.
The regulation is set to be adopted as part of the type approval rules in the European Union and Japan. The European Commission has said that the regulation will apply in the EU following its entry into force on Jan. 1, 2021, UNECE said.
Other countries that participated in the run-up to the regulation include the U.S., China and Canada, although none of the three nations directly apply UNECE regulations.
ALKS can be activated only if certain conditions are met: the road must not include any pedestrians or cyclists and it must have a physical barrier that divides the traffic moving in opposite directions, according to the new rule.
The UNECE regulation allows for the first time a vehicle to come to a safe stop if the driver does not respond to the handover command. Currently, an automaker is mandated by law to deactivate any steering assistance functions if a driver fails to respond, which creates an accident risk if the driver is incapacitated and not able to take control of the car.
The emergence of autonomous vehicles is one of the most anticipated revolutions in the auto industry, offering the opportunity for lucrative new business opportunities such as robotaxis.
Some companies have become increasingly frustrated by laws prohibiting automakers from selling the self-driving technology and motorists from using it.
While Level 2 assistance systems require the driver to take control at a moment’s notice, Level 3, which is also classified as “conditionally autonomous” or “highly automated,” allows eyes-off driving. However, there will be times when the vehicle requires the driver to re-assume control. Level 4 “mind-off” systems do not require a handover from the vehicle to the driver and Level 5 vehicles operate without a driver or steering wheel.
Automakers such as Volvo Cars consider the Level 3 driving mode “unsafe” and will skip this level of autonomous driving, CEO Hakan Samuelsson has said.
Volvo says that the handover of control from the vehicle to the driver could be risky and the five to 10 seconds drivers have under Level 3 technology is too little time to assess a traffic situation. The UNECE regulation does not settle the controversy because no minimum amount of time is foreseen under the new guidelines.
A Volvo spokesman told Automotive News Europe: “The new UNECE framework is a step in the right direction. However, we do not yet have full overview of how this will harmonize with national legislations. We continue to follow the developments.”
The new regulatory framework also includes key requirements on cybersecurity to help reduce hacking risks and regulatory changes for over-the-air (OTA) updates so automakers can improve vehicle software systems without the risk of the vehicle becoming non-compliant.
It also stipulates that a data storage unit — much like an airplane’s “black box” — be included to record when the system is activated and deactivated in order to ascertain who was in control of the vehicle in the event of a collision.
For the purposes of improving the system, the device will also be able to collect information on glitches, failures and other relevant events during operation.