Car industry frustrated by Commission ‘disorganisation’ on driverless vehicles

Superfast 5G mobile networks that will underpin technologies like driverless cars come with "medium to high" cybersecurity risks, the EU agency ENISA has warned. [Wikimedia]

Car industry lobbyists are complaining that in-house divisions at the European Commission are delaying technologies like driverless cars from getting onto European streets.

“We see too many cooks in the kitchen,” Erik Jonnaert, secretary general of the European car industry lobby group ACEA, said at a Brussels conferences yesterday (17 May).

“On this subject one could ask the question, ‘Who do I call within the Commission?’ and at the moment there are different people to call,” Jonnaert said of the EU executive’s splintered efforts to boost driverless vehicles and car functions with internet connection.

Jonnaert shared a panel on connected vehicles with high-ranking Commission officials from three different directorate generals ― DG Move (transport), DG Grow (single market) and DG Connect (digital). The three departments are all doing legwork for potential new legislation on driverless and connected cars.

A group of car manufacturers, consumer groups and government officials started meeting this January to come up with guidelines for new EU rules on driverless cars. DG Move is hosting the group.

But the car industry warned that piecemeal regulation of specific issues will not be enough to help European companies produce driverless cars quickly.

“We have a tendency in Europe that when we have safety issues in mobility we adopt a safety directive and when we have emissions issues we adopt an emissions directive,” Jonnaert said.

“Is this not the golden opportunity we’ve all been waiting for to come up with a new horizontal regulatory approach?” he wondered.

Commission gears up for driverless cars in push to compete with tech giants

A new European Commission-led expert group on autonomous vehicles is meeting today (26 January) for the first time, marking the executive’s latest push to develop driverless cars in the EU.

Liability and security

Jonnaert said manufacturers need clear traffic regulations and rules on liability and security for driverless cars that apply across the EU. Insurance companies have also asked for legal clarity when it comes to liability issues related to automated vehicles.

Commission officials insist that several departments are involved in driverless cars because it’s become a priority for the executive and the different units are not divided.

“I think you might be a little worried when you see three people from the Commission coming to talk to you about the same topic, but I think it’s good news,” said Joanna Szychowska, head of unit for automative and mobility industries at DG Grow.

Several EU countries, including Germany, the UK and the Netherlands, are eager to get driverless cars on the road. EU officials often refer to the push for autonomous vehicles as a kind of race with countries like the United States, which will invest $4 billion of government funds into developing driverless cars by 2026. Technology companies Google and Tesla have been leading tests on autonomous vehicles in the US.

Campaigners have urged officials to address consumer protection issues as the Commission and EU member states aim to have driverless cars on the market by 2030.

“I wonder if there’s such a problem with Europe being perhaps a little bit slower to react to these issues than the US,” said Chris Carroll, a sustainable transport officer at the European Consumer Organisation (BEUC).

But Szychowska said the Commission does not have time to waste.

“We have our Chinese competitors on our backs. I think urgency is rather a guiding principle for the process,” Szychowska said in response.

Later this year, the Commission’s transport department, DG Move, will publish what it calls a “master plan” on connected vehicles.

One official said the executive will likely make changes to current EU law on vehicles and internet connection in 2018.

The changes to the six-year-old intelligent transport system directive will include data protection and security measures for cars’ communications with other cars and with road infrastructure.

Member states divided over driverless car agreement

Transport ministers from EU countries are slated to sign a joint declaration on driverless vehicles tomorrow (14 April), but squabbles between member states have made the agreement a sensitive subject.

Connected cars use internet connectivity to perform various functions, including measuring location, road conditions and car performance.

Fully autonomous or driverless cars do not need driver intervention to function. Car companies have been calling for laws that would allow autonomous cars to drive more freely in Europe.

The EU has been organising initiatives to promote road safety and traffic management by pooling information provided by cars that are hooked up to the digital network infrastructure, as early back as 2010. In particular, the EU executive wants wants the industry to convert their efforts into "a global market success" via enhanced co-operation and standarisation of ICT-aided cars. Car manufacturers have also invested heavily in these.

The European Commission has announced that it will propose legislation in 2016 that will impact connected cars.

The GEAR 2030 working group will meet for two years starting in January 2016, and focus in part on autonomous vehicles.

The Commission's transport department DG Move will make changes to the intelligent transport systems directive in 2018 that will affect data protection and secure communication between vehicles and infrastructure.

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