Posted on Categories changes in law, research

Green light for autonomous vehicles in Poland?

The green light may have been given, but it is not glowing very brightly. Amendments to the Polish Road Traffic Law suggest a real possibility of self-driving cars becoming widely used in Poland. The new rules will allow roads to be used for testing autonomous vehicles. The act is also the first act in the Polish legal system to define an autonomous vehicle, which is a vehicle fitted with systems that control the vehicle’s movement and enable it to move without driver interaction, which a driver can take control over at any time (Art. 65k).

Does this mean that traffic police will soon think twice about whom to issue a ticket to if a vehicle is self-driven? For the moment they do not need to worry, and neither do opponents of autonomous vehicles who fear that liability for road use decisions will be shifted to a computer.  While appearing to be innovative, Polish regulations will probably not lead to self-driving vehicles appearing on Polish roads any time soon.

The widespread enthusiasm for putting vehicles of this type on the road waned considerably following a tragic accident on 19 March 2018 in Tempe, Arizona, when a woman crossing the road at an undesignated and poorly lit place was hit by an autonomous Uber SUV driving within the permitted speed limit. The woman died of her injuries in hospital.

Clearly the woman did not exercise due care, but experts did not find signs of braking at the scene. This raises doubts about whether self-driving vehicles can react in unusual situations. A 2018 report on safety of self-driving vehicles by General Motors found that self-driving vehicles examine the route ten times a second and also anticipate the actions and movements of objects in the vehicle’s vicinity. Apparently something went wrong.

The legal grounds for testing autonomous vehicles in Poland are an excellent stimulant for investors, who include the automotive giants (GM, Ford, VW, BMW, Tesla). These measures are in line with the government-initiated electromobility trend in Poland. A closer reading of the bill reveals however that full testing of vehicles of this kind could be difficult.

A licence is required from the competent road traffic authority (the General Directorate for National Roads and Motorways – GDDKiA, voivodship marshal, head of local council – Art. 10 of the Road Traffic Law) to conduct the tests. Art. 65L (1) of the Road Traffic Law gives priority to projects in which vehicles for collective passenger services and other public tasks are tested. Presumably therefore authorities will not be very willing to issue licences for projects that do not fulfil these criteria. Naturally, a licence is issued provided safety requirements are fulfilled. Neither the act nor any secondary legislation state the safety standards and rules that apply to an autonomous vehicle. This gives authorities too much interpretational freedom, and results in a large number of unresolved factors and uncertainty for organisers of tests.

The organiser of tests is the entity that applies for the licence to conduct tests and also organises the self-driving vehicle tests. In this case as well, no definition of that organiser is given in the new provisions. This also causes doubt – although it does not automatically exclude a certain kind of entity.

Filing an application with the required documentation enclosed is an onerous obligation that is a common element of any investment. In this case, even a correctly submitted application in which a vehicle is registered that fulfils the highest standards can be blocked if opposed by an owner of real estate adjacent to the intended route.

Allowing this objection could be seen as an excessive legislative measure, as prohibiting access of autonomous vehicles does not improve the way life, health, or property of an owner of real estate is generally protected.  Real estate of this kind might be an ordinary meadow that is not damaged in any way, even if the vehicle being tested drives into the meadow. In addition, the driver as well as a computer oversees the drive. The risk is therefore similar to the risk posed by a conventional vehicle, because the driver can be distracted, leading to destruction of somebody’s property.

This provision does not afford residents in the area of the intended route greater protection, while it is a huge obstacle for potential investors wishing to conduct testing of self-driving vehicles. An objection, for which no criteria are set under the act, immediately renders worthless the effort put into preparation of the application. When an objection is filed an authority automatically turns down the application for the licence. It can also suspend or revoke a licence. In such a case, the only option left to investors is to go through administrative appeal procedures.

For the sake of comparison, there are other provisions on special use of roads such as rally driving events. Competitors in these events usually drive faster than 50 km/h and rarely come out of bends smoothly. Rally driving event regulations impose a large number of safety requirements, but do not provide for an objection. It is reasonable to assume that events of this kind are not safer for residents and their real estate than road testing of a computer-controlled vehicle in which there is a driver who is capable of intervening.

The provision allowing this objection might therefore be counterproductive, as the intention of lawmakers was to provide legal grounds for innovation and development. This could certainly discourage foreign investors, who will not be inclined to deal with disapproving residents.

In addition to this misguided objection and possibility of suspension or revocation of a licence, another factor that can block manufacturers is uncertainty with regard to technical requirements and the broad discretion of the authority issuing the licence. This is a pity, because apart from earning Poland a reputation as a country at the forefront of innovative solutions, autonomous vehicle testing investments would have significant economic effects. Despite everything, the pro-innovation approach of lawmakers should be seen as a good thing, and good, practical solutions should be proposed for the future. Legislation is rarely ideal from the very beginning.

Karolina Krawczyk