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

Google is developing and testing driverless cars in the US.

Google is developing and testing driverless cars in the US. [Wikipedia]

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.

Car manufacturers, consumer organisations, NGOs and Commission and national officials will come together over the next two years to piece together a plan to develop technology for completely driverless vehicles and to make those cars available in Europe by 2030—a goal set by the Commission.

The group will also outline what new legislation will have to be introduced to allow autonomous cars to drive on open roads.

The executive has rushed to step up its efforts to promote autonomous vehicles and connected car features over the last few months.

An EU strategy on connectivity and vehicles is expected this summer. Last September, car industry and telecoms associations agreed to come up with a list of demands for the Commission to increase connectivity and autonomous car features.

But the European Commission’s new GEAR 2030 group is the executive’s first initiative focused on getting driverless cars onto European roads.

EU officials behind the move to boost autonomous vehicles are wary of being left behind by well-funded developers in the US, Japan and other countries. Earlier this month, the Obama administration announced it would invest $4 billion into developing autonomous cars over the next ten years.

>>Read: EU accelerates to catch up on connected cars

According to a Commission document outlining the group’s plans, “The competitiveness issue shall not be forgotten.”

“Car manufacturers are competing in a worldwide race toward vehicle automation and connectivity with newcomers from the IT sector (e.g. Google, Apple, Tesla),” the document reads.

A Google spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment about the group, which does not include any technology or telecom company. Google is developing and testing its own autonomous vehicles in the US.

The European Automobile Manufacturers’ Association (ACEA), which is included in the GEAR 2030 group, had also not responded to a request for comment by the time of publication.

EU Internal Market Commissioner El?bieta Bie?kowska and Climate Commissioner Miguel Arias Cañete are chairing today’s meeting. Digital Commissioner Günther Oettinger and Employment Commissioner Marianne Thyssen are scheduled to attend.

>>Read: EU agency hones in on cybersecurity and connected cars

Some car models already available in Europe use low levels of automation.

The document handed out to participants in the group indicates that once highly automated vehicles are available, there could be a need for EU-wide legislation to regulate liability for car accidents, cybersecurity, drivers’ licenses and new traffic rules.

One main hurdle preventing driverless cars from hitting roads is the UN Convention on Road Traffic, which requires drivers to be able to control cars at any time. Seventy-three countries signed onto the agreement, including most EU member states.

A European Commission official told EURACTIV that “people are very well aware of possible constraints” caused by the UN agreement.

Several EU countries submitted an amendment to the convention in 2014 that will allow partially autonomous vehicles to drive as long as a human is able to switch them off.

The Commission document reveals that “discussion on further amendments to remove obstacles to fully automated vehicles is on-going.”

>>Read: Consumer groups expose manufacturers for collecting data from connected cars

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

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 leading 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.

  • 26 January 2016: First high-level meeting of the GEAR 2030 group.

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