China issues draft traffic laws for autonomous vehicles

The Ministry of Transport’s new rules have been widely welcomed by the industry and will support safe autonomous driving and help houses understand the extent of their obligations and duties.

Photo from CFP

Photo from CFP

By TANG Jun

 

Hailing a taxi and seeing no driver when it arrives is no longer a completely unexpected experience in some Chinese cities, but until now driverless cars have been running under a variety of local traffic laws. That legal grey area is going to be clarified soon. On Monday, the Ministry of Transport issued the first draft of national traffic law for autonomous vehicles.

Putting the law in the driving seat

The rules come at a time when autonomous driving is poised for big changes. On the same day, Baidu said it had permits for driverless taxis in Chongqing and Wuhan to run on open streets, without so-called “safety supervisors” (a person in the driver’s seat who does not actually drive the vehicle.) Earlier this year, Beijing and Guangzhou granted similar permits to Baidu and autonomous driving startup Pony.ai. A few other cities, including Shenzhen and Shanghai, are testing autonomous taxis and trucks in restricted areas.

The draft rule confirmed that “conditional” (vehicles have environmental detection and can make informed decisions for themselves) and “high” (no human interaction in most circumstances) autonomous vehicles should have direct human supervision. Fully autonomous ones need to be monitored remotely.

The rule encourages autonomous buses in closed BRT systems (similar to dedicated bus lanes), allows autonomous taxis in “uncomplicated, controllable” traffic conditions, and restricts autonomous trucks to non-stop highway trips on dedicated lanes. Autonomous long-distance buses should be “used with caution.”

Autonomous vehicles cannot drive near specified areas such as schools, hospitals and shopping malls, and should stop operating in certain weather conditions. There are detailed requirements on what types of data need to be stored and for how many seconds when a malfunction or accident happens.

And if something goes wrong?

The vehicles should be insured but there isn’t much discussion on who is liable for what in the case of an accident. Some local laws already cover this extensively. Generally speaking, the fleet operators shoulder the liabilities.

The industry sees the draft rule as an all-around positive sign. The Ministry of Transport said the rules would encourage safe autonomous driving and help companies define the scope of their services and responsibilities. Adjustments are expected as autonomous vehicles become more popular.