Driverless cars could soon be nipping through Switzerland’s city streets or winding through mountain passes. Although such technology is already being researched in other countries, approval for testing has only now been given in Switzerland.
On Tuesday the Federal Roads Office announced that the Swiss transport ministry had granted an exemption permit to Swisscom to test one car in Zurich.
The exemption permit, which is valid until the end of the year, is necessary because in all other cases vehicles must be driven with two hands on the steering wheel, the roads office said in a statement.
The conditions are strict. The tests can be carried out only on a given stretch of road in the city of Zurich. To test in other areas, permission must be given by the relevant cantonal authority or, for national roads, by the Federal Roads Office.
In addition, there must always be two specially trained human drivers on board in case something goes wrong with the car, which is equipped with an emergency stop switch.
The transport ministry said it hoped the tests would provide valuable insights into the granting of application requests, should the large-scale manufacture of driverless cars take off in the next few years.
The Federal Roads Office said the trial would also help highlight risks and problems and their solutions.
Switzerland is playing catch-up to some extent when it comes to driverless cars. Four US states have passed laws permitting them, with California leading the way.
Google’s co-founder Sergey Brin stuck his neck out in 2012, announcing the firm’s plan to bring autonomous vehicles to the market in just five years.
In 2013 the British government permitted the testing of autonomous cars on public roads and various other European cities are looking into the issue. Nissan’s chief executive officer, Carlos Ghosn, has predicted that driverless cars would be in showrooms by 2020.
In Switzerland, however, as recently as 2013 Guido Bielmann from the Federal Roads Office told swissinfo.ch that article eight of the Vienna Convention had become a “basic tenet of Swiss legislation”. He added that when examining other Swiss driving laws “you can clearly deduce that a vehicle needs a driver”.
At the same time, Rudolf Blessing of the car importers’ association Auto-Suisse seriously doubted that driverless cars would soon be appearing on Swiss roads.
“The problems are not so much technological but more especially linked to legislation. Switzerland will be obliged to wait and see what happens at the European level,” he said.
swissinfo.ch and agencies