Commission wants driverless cars to fix growing number of road deaths

The number of road deaths in the EU rose slightly in 2015. [Flickr/Chris Yarzab]

EU Transport Commissioner Violeta Bulc is turning to driverless cars as a way to improve the bloc’s floundering record on road deaths.

Bulc said Thursday (31 March) that she is “excited” about driverless cars and new technology functions that connect cars to the internet, which she hopes will turn around the EU’s slipping stats on the number of people killed from road collisions.

Numbers for 2015 show a 1% uptick in the number of road deaths compared to 2014. A further 135,000 people – mostly pedestrians, cyclists and motorbike drivers – were seriously injured on roads last year.

“The numbers are disappointing,” Bulc told reporters.

The Commission says 90% of fatal collisions are caused by drivers who make mistakes or are distracted.

“We see the human factor is failing again and again,” Bulc said.

A Commission official argued that completely driverless cars – which won’t be commercially available for at least the next several years – could have “huge potential for road safety because they would entirely eradicate human error”.

The EU executive is pushing car manufacturers to speed up work on driverless cars in a closed-door working group that started meeting in January.

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.

The group of car manufacturers and public authorities are looking into whether there should be EU-wide rules to clarify who is responsible for accidents caused by driverless cars.

A Commission source said today that there is no need yet to introduce a new laws regulating liability for driverless cars since the Commission wants cars that can drive without any help from a driver to hit roads in 2020.

In the meantime, new cars coming onto the market are equipped with more and more features that connect to the internet.

“Liability for semi-autonomous vehicles is not an issue because the driver is always still there in the car,” the Commission official said.

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Bulc said she “counts on information technology” to help EU countries drop the number of road deaths.

“We passed eCall, which is an important element that will be mandatory. We hope it will improve road safety,” she added.

Starting in March 2018, all new cars in the EU will be required to have built-in sensors that automatically alert emergency services if a car has been in a collision.

The Commission is expected to publish a guide later this year detailing how the executive will expand connectivity in road transport.

EU accelerates to catch up on connected cars

The European Commission, which plans a strategy on connected vehicles later this year, has released a report outlining how to “catch up” on connected vehicles as other countries?like the US and Japan?speed ahead.

Bulgaria and Romania have the highest number of road deaths in the EU, with 95 per one million residents.

Malta has the lowest number, with 26 deaths per one million inhabitants.

The EU average last year was 51.5 deaths per million residents. More than half of the recorded fatalities were in rural areas.

Bulc railed against member states for putting “less and less money into road safety” and failing to improve roads and police collisions properly.

“We are realising law enforcement can be done much better,” she said.

Vulnerable road users key to reaching safety targets

SPECIAL REPORT / Road safety is one of the areas in which the EU can claim progress. Since the first targets were agreed on in 2000, the number of road deaths in the bloc has been cut by 53%.

Jacob Bangsgaard, director general of consumer organisation Federation Internationale de l'Automobile's operations in Europe: “We hope that the EU and Member States see these figures as a wakeup call. New challenges, such as driver distraction, are emerging today that are linked to a broader use of technology and should be addressed in their own right. However, some low hanging fruit such as: mandating existing safety technologies; improving the training of novice drivers; and ensuring an adequate standard for our roads, would already go a long way to improving the situation.”

In 2001, the European Commission adopted an action programme with the objective of halving the number of road fatalities by 2010, from around 40,000 per year. The programme was broadly successful, resulting in a reduction of casualties to over 35,000 in 2009, which is the equivalent of a medium-sized town.

The programme has since been replaced by a new one running until 2020, with seven strategic objectives. Measures include mandatory safety measures for vehicles, safer road infrastructure, better safety enforcement and a focus on motorcyclists.

The Commission wants to halve the number of road deaths in the EU between 2010 and 2020. As of the end of 2015, the figure had only dropped by 17%.

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