EU Commission drives home merits of autonomous vehicles

Otto’s self-driving truck in action. Otto was acquired by the transportation network company Uber. [@ottodrives/Facebook]

Can driverless cars chauffeur people to a love of the EU? The European Commission is betting it can.

Christmas came early for automated driving enthusiasts this week. Convening a two-day summit in Brussels on the subject – the first of its kind – the European Commission promised a sack of goodies in the form of dedicated funding, regulatory changes, cross-border agreements and innovation stimulus.

Driverless trucks could be a reality on European motorways within two years, officials said. They would first operate in convoys where the first truck is driven by a human being but all the trucks following are driverless.

It’s the first step in a roadmap, to be published by the Commission as part of its transport strategy on 31 May, that could see driverless cars integrated with traffic by 2025.

“Owning a non-autonomous car will soon be like owning a horse,” said Carlos Moedas, the EU commissioner for research, science and innovation, who spoke at the conference.

Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has identified driverless vehicles as an area where the EU can deliver tangible benefits to citizens. In his five-scenario white paper on the future of Europe, released last month ahead of the EU’s 60th anniversary summit in Rome, connected and autonomous driving (CAD) was used repeatedly as an example of something that cannot become a reality without the EU.

In a scenario in which the EU downgrades to only a free trade zone, “Europeans are reluctant to use connected cars due to the absence of EU-wide rules and technical standards,” the paper concluded.

Three weeks later, national leaders signed an agreement in Rome to not only allow cross-border tests and experiments but also to establish one single point of contact in each country to approve them.

Highway cruising

Trucks are expected to be the first to go driverless, both because they drive on motorways and because they are the most commercially interesting. Though convoys following a lead driven vehicle will be the first step, the next step will be completely independent automated trucks.

Motorways present the safest environment for CAD because they are free of pedestrians and are more or less in a straight line. They are also more uniform throughout Europe. In the very near future trucks will be driven within cities by a driver, but then dropped off at the motorway to continue its journey alone. When the truck arrives at its destination, a new driver would pick it up at the motorway exit.

“Lisbon to Warsaw today is four and a half days, but that could be brought down to one and a half,” José Manuel Viegas, secretary-general of the International Transport Forum at the OECD, told euractiv.com.

“It’s very useful for trucks and buses not only because it would save on labour costs and operation, but because it could operate 24 hours a day.”

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Vienna Convention needs updating

Despite the Commission’s enthusiasm, this isn’t low-hanging fruit. It isn’t only the EU that is causing regulatory uncertainty in this field. Globally, rules on driving are harmonised by the UN’s 1968 Vienna Convention on Road Traffic.

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 said. “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 eight into question, different countries have interpreted these rules differently. Antti Vehviläinen, director-general of the 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.

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.

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Public worry

But is automated driving really the vote-winner that the Commission is imagining? There was much worry at the conference that fears over driverless cars are going to trump the benefits. What will someone think if they are driving on the motorway and see a driverless car next to them?

In Gothenburg Sweden, they’re about to find out. Volvo is launching a project this year called DriveMe, which will put driverless vehicles on real roads with other drivers. The company wants to test how other drivers react, as well as other safety considerations.

The safety worries are a significant hurdle. 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 vehicles should alert others when they are in automated mode.

This will be a difficult question for regulators, Viegas admitted. “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 Brussels conference was positive. There was a general consensus that, as long as safety concerns can be addressed, the EU is on to a winner by identifying autonomous vehicles 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’,” said Roberto Vavassori, president of the European automotive suppliers association CLEPA. “It would be a sign that EU legislation is there to improve quality of life for our people,” he told the conference enthusiastically.