On December 15, 2017, the Government of Hong Kong released its Smart City Blueprint,1 setting out its smart city development plans for the next five years and beyond.
Under the Smart Mobility section, one of the Government’s initiatives is to facilitate the achievement of technology advancement and industry development in vehicle-to-everything (“V2X”) and autonomous vehicles (“AV”) and ultimately, the introduction of autonomous vehicles with integrated Internet access in the territory.
In this Blueprint, the Government showed a positive attitude towards the adoption of autonomous vehicles in the future. It is encouraging to see the Government exploring and formulating initiatives to facilitate the development of autonomous vehicles in Hong Kong. There is growing anticipation for the moment when autonomous vehicles hit the roads of Hong Kong.
Indeed, many vehicles in Hong Kong are already equipped with various automated functions such as automatic cruise control, parking assist and collision alert. To situate the development and uptake of autonomous vehicles in Hong Kong within the international context, this chapter will first introduce SAE International’s classification on autonomous vehicles.
For the second part, this chapter will briefly consider the road safety requirements of Hong Kong, and the implications they have on the introduction of autonomous vehicles. Like all other local authorities, the primary concern of Hong Kong’s transport authority for any vehicle running on the roads of Hong Kong is safety.
Lastly, this chapter will provide an update on the testing of autonomous vehicles in Hong Kong following the publication of the Smart City Blueprint, which clearly demonstrates the efforts by the local administration to foster the development of autonomous vehicles in Hong Kong.
Hong Kong has not officially adopted any formal classification for autonomous vehicles. For the purpose of contextualising the development of autonomous vehicles in Hong Kong, however, the classification introduced by SAE International, a US-based professional association with a focus in the transport industries, can serve as a useful tool, since this classification is well-recognized and adopted internationally.2
This classification system focuses on the degree of human intervention needed and provides a framework for understanding advances in the technology. The classification system defines the six levels of driving automation from Level 0 (no automation) to Level 5 (full automation).
Vehicle registration and license
All motor vehicles which are to be used on roads in Hong Kong must be registered and licensed. For a motor vehicle to be registered and licensed, it must first undergo examination for roadworthiness. That is, it ought to be suitable and safe to be used on roads. The same requirements would also apply to autonomous vehicles.
In assessing the roadworthiness of a motor vehicle, the Transport Department (“TD”) will examine the vehicle in accordance with the requirements of the Road Traffic (Construction and Maintenance of Vehicles) Regulations (Cap. 374A), as well as consider its overall safety and performance on roads, and the impact it has on other vehicles or pedestrians according to the Road Traffic Ordinance (Cap. 374) and its subsidiary legislation.
Alterations and modifications to vehicles
Maintaining the roadworthiness of a vehicle is an ongoing obligation. Therefore, even if a vehicle has been registered and licensed to run on streets, any subsequent alteration or modification affecting a vehicle’s road safety (including software updates) has to be approved by TD. This is to confirm that the alteration or modification meets the required safety standard. Otherwise, TD may deem the altered or modified vehicles not roadworthy.
As such, software updates that introduce new, perhaps self-driving, functions to a registered and licensed vehicle would have to be cleared by TD before they can be released to the public for installation and use. This was precisely the situation with Tesla’s software update in 2015.
Case study of Tesla’s Software Update
In 2015, Tesla released a software update to its Model S cars, introducing a number of driver-assisted features including auto parking, side collision warning, brake holding, auto steer and auto lane change. As mentioned above, these features required TD’s approval before release.
Initially TD only approved the auto parking, side collision warning and brake holding features, meaning Tesla had to disable the remaining two features in Hong Kong. After seeking clarifications from Tesla, and careful assessments on the performance of the auto steer and auto lane change features under Hong Kong’s road and traffic conditions, TD eventually approved these further two features on the following conditions:
- These features can only be used on roads with a central divider and a speed limit of 70km/h or higher;
- A proper warning message must be displayed to remind drivers to maintain control at all times whilst these features are in use.
Furthermore, TD also required Tesla to educate drivers so that they are aware of the functions and limitations of those features.
Given that drivers are required to maintain control at all times, these features remain auxiliary in nature. Based on the SAE classification system, it appears that Level 1 – Driver Assistance or perhaps even Level 2 – Partial Automation has been made possible on certain roads in Hong Kong. However, full automation still lies much further ahead.
The current regulatory regime on road safety is mainly governed by the Road Traffic Ordinance and its subsidiary legislations. Certain aspects of these legislations pose a number of challenges to the uptake of autonomous vehicles, particularly ones with high levels of automation, in Hong Kong.
Definition of “driver”
Progressing along the SAE classifications, the driver’s level of involvement would become less and less, with the ultimate goal of a completely driverless car by Level 5 – Full Automation.
At present, the road safety regulations in Hong Kong, which were clearly drafted with a human driver in mind, are less than accommodating to this level of automation. Notably, many of these regulations on car specifications contain references to the “driver”, whereas the current definition of a “driver” under the Road Traffic Ordinance still requires a driver to be a person:
[D]river …, in relation to any vehicle (other than a rickshaw), vehicle of the North-west Railway, or tram, means any person who is in charge of or assisting in the control of it …3
To accommodate autonomous vehicles where it is the built-in system that is in charge of or assisting in the control of the vehicle, the current definition would need to be revised.
Road Users’ Code
The local road safety requirement regime also provides a Road Users’ Code which lays down rules and advice for all road users. Many of the rules in the Road Users’ Code directly reflect the law. Hence, a person not observing these rules could well be committing an offence. A road user should also observe rules and advice that are not mandatory, since even though:
A failure on the part of any road user to observe any rule or follow any advice in the Road Users’ Code is in itself not an offence, but any such failure may be taken into account in any proceedings (whether civil or criminal, and including proceedings for an offence under the Road Traffic Ordinance) when deciding if a road user was at fault or not and to what extent, and may also be relied on for establishing or negating any liability under any of these proceedings.4
Similar to the legislation, these rules and advice were drafted with the presumption that the driver is a person. For example:5
- Do not drive if you are tired, unwell or emotionally upset – if you must drive then keep your speed down and give yourself more time to react;
- You must not watch a television while driving;
- You must drive with care and attention and with reasonable consideration for other road users and
In fact, one aspiration in the development of AV is that any person, regardless of age, qualification, and condition, can be taken to his or her destination without the assistance of any other person.
Therefore, it is envisaged that a number of these rules and advice may need to be reconsidered to accommodate circumstances where a fully autonomous vehicle is used on the roads.
“Mobile phone” law
Aside from improved road safety, many drivers also welcome vehicle automation as it frees up the drivers’ hands and attention during the journey.
However, under the current regime, regardless of the level of automation, drivers could face a fine if caught holding a hand-held mobile phone by hand or in between his head and shoulder, or holding its accessories including the microphone while the vehicle is in motion.6 The same prohibition also applies to other similar hand-held “telecommunications equipment” such as radio phones.
In the future, where drivers exert minimal control on the vehicle, these prohibitions may well become redundant. Instead of focusing on the road, drivers would be able to divert their attention onto other things as they are taken to their destinations.
Like the prohibition on the use of mobile phones, to limit distractions, it is illegal to install a visual display unit on a motor vehicle at any point forward of the driver’s seat or where the screen is visible to the driver whilst in the driving seat, unless those visual images are permitted under the law, i.e.
- information about the current state of the vehicle or its equipment;
- the current closed-circuit view of any part of the vehicle or the area surrounding the vehicle;
- information about the current location of the vehicle; or
- any other information which is only for the purpose of navigating the vehicle.7
As such, when Tesla added a calendar function to its cars, TD required it to be removed. In its response to media enquiries, TD pointed to safety considerations. This indicates it is the official stance that a driver should pay attention to the road conditions at all times and not be distracted.
Hence, any in-vehicle infotainment for drivers will not be possible under the current regime. In the future, should the authorities be satisfied that driving safety would not be compromised by the driver’s use of infotainment in an autonomous vehicle, the authorities would need to change the existing requirements to take full advantage of the possibilities brought on by autonomous vehicles.
The Smart City Blueprint recently issued by the Hong Kong Government set out the Government’s initiatives to facilitate trials of autonomous vehicles at appropriate sites, so as to support the development of autonomous vehicle technologies in Hong Kong.
Prior to December 2017, TD had approved three separate trials of autonomous vehicles under specific and safe conditions. These three trials were conducted in the West Kowloon Cultural District, Science Park in Sha Tin, and the Zero Carbon Building in Kowloon Bay, respectively.
At the time, approvals for trial were considered on a “case-by-case basis.” The lack of clear guidance, however, proved to be an obstacle for the development of autonomous vehicle technology in Hong Kong. The difficulty in obtaining approval necessitated the developers of the first Hong Kong built driverless vehicle to consider testing their creation across the border in Shenzhen instead.
Guide on Application for Movement Permit for Test, Trial and/or Demonstration of Autonomous Vehicles on Roads within Designated Sites in Hong Kong
Finally, in December 2017, TD issued the Guide on Application for Movement Permit for Test, Trial and/or Demonstration of Autonomous Vehicles on Roads within Designated Sites in Hong Kong (“Guide”). The Guide clarifies the application procedures for testing, trialing and/or holding demonstrations of autonomous vehicles in Hong Kong.
The Guide acknowledges the difficulty for autonomous vehicles to comply with existing regulations on motor vehicles. To facilitate the development of autonomous vehicle technology in Hong Kong without compromising road safety, TD may instead issue movement permits for the purposes of testing, trialing and/or holding demonstrations of autonomous vehicles on roads within designated sites under specified conditions.
The Guide sets out a formal procedure for applicants wishing to apply for a movement permit. To allow TD to make a comprehensive assessment on the risks and dangers of the proposed test, trial and/or demonstration, the applicant would have to provide, amongst other things:
- Technical specifications of the vehicle;
- Details of insurance coverage, including third party risks insurance against death, personal injury and property damage;
- Description of the proposed test, trial and/ or demonstration, including the training and qualification of the testing team, a risk assessment report and safety measures;
- Official instruction issued to the test driver/ operator;
- Limitations of automated operation;
- Reports and records from previous trials.
Despite giving much clearer guidance, applications remain to be assessed on a case-by-case basis depending on their own merits.
To view the guide, please click here.
The Guide on testing autonomous vehicles is the first step the Hong Kong Government has taken to facilitate the development of autonomous vehicles after publishing its Smart City Blueprint.
Moving forward, in line with the Smart City Blueprint, the local administration should take steps to review its current road safety requirements as part of its effort in facilitating the development of autonomous vehicles. As discussed above, many of these requirements may present a hindrance to the uptake of autonomous vehicles in Hong Kong.
Finally, although the Guide on testing autonomous vehicles is a welcome step, businesses and road users in Hong Kong look forward to seeing further specific guidance issued by the Government on the use and development of autonomous vehicles in Hong Kong. This can be done in the form of guides and codes of practice, for example, it would be useful to have a guide on passing the vehicle examination for roadworthiness for autonomous vehicles.
- Innovation and Technology Bureau, ‘Hong Kong Smart City Blueprint’ (2017) https://www.smartcity.gov.hk.
SAE International, ‘Taxonomy and Definitions for Terms Related to On-Road Motor Vehicle Automated Driving Systems’ (2016).
Road Traffic Ordinance (Cap 374) s 2.