photo: unsplash.com

The United Roads of Europe

Private Life and Mobility

Raven Brookes

7-10-2019

       

Humans have been travelling since day one. First by foot, then horseback, then in cars and vehicles - it’s human nature to explore beyond the horizon. Just ask the billions of us who jump in a vehicle every single day to go from A to B.

photo: unsplash.com

We’ve already spoken about the importance of Universal Basic Mobility, the idea that every human should have the fundamental right to travel, with distinct ‘classes’ of person emerging based on their access to modes of transport. In the EU, there are over 300 million cars in circulation – more than one for every two people. It is clear that mobility is high, even for the people with the lowest incomes.

But does this mean seamlessly integrating automated vehicles, even onto such a well-developed international network, will be straightforward?

 

Automated driving in Europe

Even though most major cities in the EU have a coach station, airport or connection to the wider rail network, road journeys still dominate, with 83% of all trips taken by car. With consumers unwilling to completely swap their cars for public transport, for journeys made outside of major cities, the focus has turned to reducing the energy consumed and pollution caused by petrol and diesel cars. So, electric cars are high on the political agenda for practically every member state, with some even committing to outlaw fossil fuel cars within the next decade.

photo: tesla.com

With wide-reaching changes to cars already on the agenda, along with a realisation that driverless vehicles come with a lot of benefits, the opportunity for automation to go hand-in-hand with electrification is significant. Some countries are already well on the way to ensuring the development of infrastructure is aligned with a future based on driverless cars.

 

Countries like the Netherlands, who were ranked as the "most ready" for automated cars by consultants KPMG, are trialling driverless lorries on public ‘smart’ roads. Norway is one of the fastest adopters to electric vehicles, and are currently trialling automated buses along with working through legislation to ensure level 5 driverless vehicles are allowed on the roads when the technology eventually goes mainstream.

 

But what happens if you wanted to drive an automated car between the two?

 

photo: unsplash.com

Different approaches to autonomous driving

 On our hypothetical autonomous drive between Amsterdam and Oslo, a 14.5 hour drive through the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark then into Norway via ferry, it becomes clear that there are a lot of factors involved with such a journey.

 

From the perspective of the vehicle, the route shouldn’t be too challenging. All of the nations involved rate highly in terms of road network quality and navigability, so even the most basic driverless cars should be able to navigate the motorways and main arteries on this particular route. However, if our journey through Europe were to involve driving in countries where the roads aren’t as developed, there could be sections of the journey where autonomous driving simply isn’t possible, removing the whole idea of going driverless between nations.

 

Then there’s the legality part. Currently, states in Europe have varying degrees of legislation when it comes to driverless vehicles. Some have already given the green light for low-level automation (i.e., systems that offer automated driver assistance or allow for assisted steering and navigation with both hands on the wheel), but for completely driverless it’s often still a firm no.

 

From insurance and liability all the way to the consequences of accidents caused by driverless vehicles, many governments haven’t even begun to debate a unified approach. The status quo is dominated by local governments who are trialling fully autonomous journeys with a lot of controls in place, and with a lot of questions that need to be answered before the reigns are slackened. Before a completely driverless car can operate in a single country, bills, amendments and updates to frameworks would need to be fully agreed and ratified.

 

These processes take a lot of time and money and in certain cases come up against objections. In the Netherlands for example, local lawmakers expressed valid concerns that current automated driving technology didn’t perform well when sharing a road with bikes – something that the Netherlands has a lot of. Multiply these obstacles several times for each country on the journey and it soon becomes clear that an interconnected, autonomous Europe isn’t an easy objective to achieve.

 

The wider picture 

Even if all of the countries on our journey managed to legalise and promote autonomous driving independently, there’s still the wildcard that is the European Union itself. As well as individual states setting out their own automated driving approaches and policies, the EU has to approve any changes to vehicle and transport laws currently in place. The good news is that these changes are well on the way.

 

In 2018, EU vehicle approval framework legislation was changed to favour individual nations’ approaches to autonomous driving. This means nations are able to override EU rules regarding automation in order to advance their driverless vehicle programs.

 

There’s also the fact that the EU is aiming to be competitive globally when it comes to transport and infrastructure, with the idea that better interconnectivity between members states will drive employment and economies. From smart roads to wider 5G connectivity, the changes already underway make life a lot easier for autonomous vehicles to enter the market with most of what they need to operate already in place.

 

Automated driving timescales

 So when could we be driven on our hypothetical journey across the EU? Well, if you listen to EU lawmakers and individual authorities testing driverless vehicles in their territories, soon. 2025 was long held as a target for driving fully automated on highways, but outside of countries that are working hard towards a driverless future, the timescales are likely to be in the decades than years. The real acid test is the money promised for improving the automated driving landscape.

 

The EU have outlined various plans for spending, but the standout is the Connecting Europe Facility, providing up to €2.3 billion between 2018-2020 for Europe-wide infrastructure improvements. A sizeable chunk of this is going towards digitisation and smart networks, crucial for the most advanced driverless vehicles.

 

With such solid investment, defined timescales and testing projects that have already been in development for several years now, the question of being able to drive across Europe isn’t if, but when.

 

Are you looking forward to long journeys that don’t require concentration? Or do you have reservations about putting your life in the hands of a computer? Join the debate and let us know your thoughts on the future of autonomous driving in Europe.

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