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Can automated driving make people love the EU?

Carlos Moedas, EU’s research and innovation commissioner, opened the event. (Photo: European Commission)

Brussels has started a high-profile push for connected and automated driving as part of a broader strategy to connect the EU with citizens. Will it result in speeding up innovation and changing outdated regulation?

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Brussels has started a high-profile push for connected and automated driving as part of a broader strategy to connect the EU with citizens. Will it result in speeding up innovation and changing outdated regulation?

Last month, as European Union leaders gathered in Rome to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the bloc and discuss the next steps after Britain’s shock decision to leave, some sceptics accused the European leaders of being on autopilot.

It was perhaps not far off the mark. Inside the gilded palace halls, the leaders signed a landmark agreement to cooperate on test cases for driverless cars. Such testing has been difficult in the bloc because of the 28 different legal regimes. But the leaders agreed not only to allow cross-border tests and experiments, but also to establish one single point of contact in each country to approve them.

It was all part of a connected and automated driving push by the European Commission, which was first revealed in a strategy document issued in early March. The document made the case for a Europe stronger together. Throughout, connected and automated driving (CAD) was used as an example of where EU cooperation can deliver tangible benefits to citizens.

The conference took place at the Charlemagne building in Brussels. (Photo: European Commission)

This week the Commission held the first European conference on CAD in Brussels. Carlos Moedas, the EU’s research and innovation commissioner, opened the event by claiming that if the EU does not set the right legal and regulatory framework, innovation-friendly conditions and support to research projects, CAD will not become a reality any time soon.

“CAD will not happen on its own,” he said. “If you have 100 million cars that depend on fuel, and you add 1 million automatic electric cars, you have such an imbalance that this is not going to happen alone.”

Fixing the Vienna Convention

The overall mood of the conference was enthusiastic. People spoke of the possibility of having automated cars on the road within the very near future - with automated truck platoons on highways as soon as 2019. “Owning a non-autonomous car will soon be like owning a horse,” said Moedas, quoting Elon Musk.

But there were concerns that the existing regulatory structure will not allow for experimentation and deployment. Rules on driving are harmonised at the international level by the UN’s Vienna Convention on road traffic, which dates from 1968. All European states abide by the treaty. But Joost Vantomme, smart mobility Director at the European Automobile Manufacturers' Association (ACEA), said the rules need to be clarified.

“Article eight says you need to have a driver in the vehicle, and they need to be in control of the vehicle,” he told 2025AD at the conference. “But what is a driver? Can it be a computer? And what does it mean to be in control of the vehicle?”

As the technology for automated driving has called article 8 into question, different countries have interpreted these rules differently. Antti Vehviläinen, director-general of Finnish Transport Agency, told the conference that Finland has chosen a loose interpretation. “The driver does not need to be in the car, he just needs to be in control,” he said.

Antti Vehviläinen, director-general of the Finnish Transport Agency. (Photo: European Commission)

Joël Valmain, adviser for European and international affairs, to the French Ministry of Interior, said France is considering the same interpretation. “‘Hands on the steering wheel’ is not written in convention,” he said. “But the driver must be able to take control of the car in any case at any moment.”

Vantomme said that that the EU’s early efforts at clarification could mean that the bloc ends up setting the standards later adopted at the UN. It can take four to five years to modify a UN treaty, and work has not even begun yet.

In September the automotive and telecommunications sectors got together to create the European Alliance of Telecoms and Automotive (EATA) to coordinate testing. It has set itself a mission of deploying CAD tests in five countries over the next few years: Germany, France, Spain, Belgium and the Netherlands. They are aiming to deploy automated valet parking, truck platooning of up to 10 km/h (6.2 mph) and highway chauffeur automation on motorways.

Paraskevi Michou, deputy secretary-general of the European Commission, told the conference that the next big development will come on 31 May, when the EU unveils the first stage of a far-reaching mobility package. It will include a CAD roadmap “to steer and coordinate European research and innovation activities and policies in the longer term." A second part of the package will be unveiled in November, she said.

Joost Vantomme, smart mobility Director at the ACEA. (Photo: European Commission)

Meanwhile Horizon 2020, the EU research and innovation funding programme, has opened dedicated calls on automated road transport.

Though the Commission views CAD as something popular with the public, there were concerns at the conference about public acceptance. People are worried about the safety of the vehicles.

At a special break-away panel dedicated to the human factors in CAD, most people agreed that people will over-trust automation and this could present dangers. Almost everyone agreed that operating an automated vehicle should require special training, and half said that if a vehicle is in automated mode it should be communicated with other drivers.

Tackling public worry

José Manuel Viegas, secretary-general of the International Transport Forum at the OECD, told 2025AD that it’s a difficult question for regulators. “A minister will know that giving approval today and then having a fatal accident tomorrow will result in him being fired,” he said. “You need to be able to guarantee that the automated vehicle would not fail in a scenario in which a human would not fail.”

Still, the mood at the conference was positive. There was a general consensus that as long as the safety concerns can be addressed the EU is on to a winner by identifying this as an area where it will demonstrate innovation leadership and quick regulatory adjustment.

“Imagine on our roads trucks platooning with big signs saying ‘Europe on the move’,” Roberto Vavassori, president of European automotive suppliers association CLEPA, told the conference. “It would be a sign that EU legislation is there to improve quality of life for our people.”

About our author:

Dave Keating is an American journalist based in Brussels covering European politics. Having previously covered US politics in Washington, Dave specializes in drawing comparisons between the American federal system and the European Union.

Dave has covered the courtrooms of Chicago, the halls of the US congress, the streets of New York City and the board rooms of the City of London. As a broadcast journalist, Dave has worked as a line producer for a weekly newscast, a show producer for newsmagazine specials and a segment producer for live news panels and interviews.

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