France greenlights driverless car trials on public roads

© Groupe PSA
French lawmakers have given the go-ahead for driverless cars to hit the highway on a trial basis, as part of the government's "New industrial France" plan to make some 34 areas of the economy more competitive on the world stage.

The approval to allow the use of “autonomous vehicles” on the roads came after the Council of Ministers ratified an amendment to the Vienna convention.

From 1968, the UN Vienna Convention on Road Traffic formed the basis of national road regulations in over seventy countries that ratified the treaty. One of the stipulations was that the driver must control his vehicle at all times.

The latest amendment, proposed by Environment Minister Segolene Royal and Secretary of State for Transport Alain Vidal, and pushed through by lawmakers Wednesday allows cars to drive autonomously if the driver can override or switch them off at any time.

In announcing the breakthrough in French traffic regulations, the government said self-driving vehicles are the “future of the automotive industry,” in France.

While stressing that the amendment is now only in an “experimental phase” the country hopes that it will give French automakers a competitive edge to prepare for “the mobility of tomorrow.”

The Council of Ministers has called it “an indispensable step towards peaceful mobility, regulated and secure traffic, and transport that is both more efficient and more environmentally friendly.”

With the vast majority of road accidents in the world stemming from human error, France hopes that autonomous vehicles can reduce fatality statistics in the country.

“The autonomous vehicle should have reactions and adaptive capacities superior to those of a human driver and thus make fewer mistakes,” to avoid accidents related to fatigue, alcohol use or distraction of the driver, the government said in a statement.

READ MORE: Tesla’s Autopilot back in spotlight as 2nd self-driving crash reported

The government did not specify exactly how many cars would take to the highways and how long the test period would run, but it welcomed the amendments as part of the ‘New Industrial France’ plan, that envisages support and initiatives across 34 industrial projects.

The new legislation, Elysee said is “aimed at making the French automotive industry and road transport one of the pioneers in the design of autonomous vehicle for all,” that reflects the ambition of France to be recognized as a leader in car manufacturing technology.

Automakers Renault and Peugeot already have plans to launch production models of autonomous cars by 2019. Last year, the Citroen C4 driverless car completed a test run from Paris to Bordeaux, but that time the manufacturer had used a special permit. Before the amendment, exhibitors were only allowed to try their vehicle on public roads during trade fairs, such as Intelligent Transportation Bordeaux.

France is not the only country to amend its rules to open the roads for autonomous cars. In the United States, testing on public roads is already permitted in several states like Nevada, California, and Michigan. Ontario in Canada also gave the green light for autonomous vehicles in October 2015, while the German government adopted a bill on traffic rules to accommodate automated driving this spring.

But despite the very promising outlook for industry safety, the autonomous vehicles niche faces safety concerns, especially after setbacks with Tesla’s version 7 software which included autopilot capabilities. So far there have been two crashes, one fatal.

The May 7 fatal crash of a Tesla Model S operating in autopilot mode, according to a preliminary report by the National Transportation Safety Board was attributed to the driver speeding while using “Traffic-Aware Cruise Control and Autosteer lane keeping assistance” features.