Frankfurt : Germany's route to driverless cars. So, the autonomous vehicle may give the country a big competitive advantage.

In Hamburg, a fleet of electric Volkswagen vans owned by a ride-hailing service roams the streets picking up and dropping off passengers.

The vehicles steer themselves, but technicians working from remote control center keep an eye on the progress with the help of video monitors. If anything goes wrong, they can take control of the vehicle and steer it out of trouble.

This futuristic vision, within reach of current technology, is about to become legal in Germany. The Parliament in Berlin approved a new law on autonomous driving in May, and it awaits the signature of Germany's president, a formality.

The law opens a path for companies to start making money from autonomous driving services, which could also spur development.

With its requirement that autonomous vehicles be overseen by humans, the German law reflects a realization in the industry that researchers are still years away from cars that can safely allow the drivers to disengage while the car does all the work.

The law also requires that autonomous  vehicles operate in a defined space approved by the authorities, an acknowledgement that the technology is advanced enough to work safely in areas where traffic is chaotic and unpredictable.

So German companies that are pursuing the technology have adjusted their ambitions, focusing on moneymaking uses that don't require major breakthroughs.

''Germany is unique in the sense that you now have a law that pertains to the entire country,'' said Elliot Katz, the chief business officer of Phantom Auto, a California company that provides software to monitor and control vehicles remotely.

The German legislation could also give the country's automakers an edge in the race to design cars that can drive themselves. By deploying autonomous vehicles commercially, they will gather large amounts of data they can use to advance the  technology.

If the services are profitable, they will also help pay for further development.

''There are two major  topics for the German can manufacturers : the change to electric cars and autonomous driving,'' said Moritz Husch, a partner at the Convington law firm in Frankfurt who has followed the legislation.

''The German car manufacturers are one of our crown jewels. They are really keen to get at the forefront of both the topics.

Proponents say the law will allow autonomous buses to serve rural areas where public transportation is scarce. Other services might include automated valet parking or robot package delivery .

Autonomous vehicles could be used to transport components or workers around a factory complex or students around a university.

Vehicles already exist that can navigate a predictable course, such as from an airport parking lot to a departure terminal, but existing German law requires a human to be on board, which cancels out any cost savings from eliminating the driver.

If a driver can oversee a dozen buses from a command center, ''there are use cases that would now be attractive,'' said Peter Liggesmeyer, director of  the Fraunhofer Institute for Experimental Software Engineering in Kaiserslautern. That will encourage more development.

''Germany can be the first country in the world to bring vehicles without drivers from the laboratory into everyday use,'' Arno Klare, a Social Democratic member of Parliament, said during a debate about the law in Berlin.

Raj Rajkumar, who leads the autonomous driving program at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, which has produced many of the leading scientists in the field, said the new legislation would give German companies an advantage.

But he said he was concerned that the United States and Europe were both at risk of falling behind China in technology and regulations.

The Publishing continues into the future. The World Students Society thanks author Jack Erwing.


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