Germany wants a ‘black box’ in any car with self-driving features

Cars that drive themselves should be able to account for themselves, or so goes the thinking behind new legislation proposed by Germany’s transport ministry. The country is planning new laws that require cars equipped with self-driving features to also include a black box, Reuters reports, similar to the flight recorder required on aircraft.

Germany’s future legislation, which will still need to be approved by other ministries before being put to a vote and entered into law, would require car manufacturers to install a recorder that tracks when an autopilot system is engaged, when the driver is controlling the vehicle manually, when the system asked the driver to take over and when it was disengaged.

The law also requires that drivers remain seated at the wheel while a self-driving system is operating, but specifically allows that a human behind the wheel not have to pay attention to traffic or concentrate specifically on surrounding traffic. It’s yet another example of regulators looking to put more defined terms on what they expect from car-makers working on autonomy, whereas previously there has been precious little in the way of oversight.

Some manufacturers already monitor use of their self-driving systems. Tesla vehicles track trip data, recording info about what’s going on with the vehicle in case of accidents. Elon Musk tweeted that “onboard vehicle logs” revealed Autopilot wasn’t engaged in a recent Model X rollover accident in Pennsylvania. These logs have also been cited in a number of other incidents, and provide data that is much more finely detailed than what you might expect. It’s unclear, however, if this kind of system will match the legislation’s requirements.

It benefits just about everyone in the mix to have comprehensive data recorded regarding self-driving cars, since data is the key to improving the systems. Where not all parties might agree, however, will be on who has access to the data, at what times, and with what degree of transparency – and that’s where the emerging regulatory picture is likely to start creating debate between public and private interests.