Transport ministers from EU countries are slated to agree on a joint declaration on driverless vehicles tomorrow (14 April), but squabbles between member states have made the deal a sensitive subject.
The Dutch Council presidency drafted the declaration to try to boost EU member states’ development of driverless car technology. But there are still doubts about whether EU countries want to continue meeting in a new working group and pledge to introduce driverless cars by 2019.
EU Digital Commissioner Günther Oettinger has said he wants driverless cars to be available by 2020.
EU officials pointed out that one issue dogging the draft declaration is that a handful of member states are competing to be the first European country where driverless cars run on open roads.
The Dutch presidency wants member states to come up with a common strategy for driverless cars. But with Slovakia, followed by Malta, next in line to pick up the six-month, rotating Council presidency slots this summer, some of the officials who crafted the declaration are concerned those countries will drop driverless cars off their list of priorities, according to several sources involved in discussions over the pledge.
The declaration will set up a new working group made up of ministers from EU countries and will be chaired by one member state—determined on a rotating basis.
Some countries, like the UK and Germany, have adjusted national laws to allow testing of driverless cars and adopted strategies to make the new technology commercially available within the next few years.
A recent draft of the EU declaration, obtained by EURACTIV.com, says that “not every Member State will be able or willing to be actively involved from the start”.
Several sources told EURACTIV that some member states will not support the declaration when transport ministers meet tomorrow in Amsterdam.
A Dutch official who spoke on condition of anonymity said not all 28 EU countries are expected to lend their support to the agreement. But the Dutch transport ministry is convinced the declaration is a needed push for driverless cars to eventually move across EU borders.
The declaration also outlines the “important priority to amend the Vienna Convention in order to allow the use of automated vehicles on public roads”.
Most EU countries have signed on to an international convention regulating road safety. A 2014 amendment made way for cars that run without a driver’s full control, as long as a human can still shut off the vehicle.
But the convention still restricts driverless cars from operating on open roads.
The UK is not part of the convention.
Tests of driverless cars already run on public roads in parts of the United States, which is also not covered by the convention.
The declaration could put EU countries on par with the more relaxed traffic regulations in the US, where Google and Tesla have been testing their driverless cars. National rules that might hamper the move towards driverless cars should be repealed or updated, according to the document.
“Any obstacles in national rules need to be tackled regarding the testing and deployment of connected and automated, e.g., on traffic laws, liability and privacy aspects,” the declaration reads.
But European Commission officials who are trying to ease up regulations for driverless cars think the new declaration might be a lot of hot air.
The EU executive set up its own working group on driverless cars in January and has been chairing talks with member states, public authorities and car manufacturers.
“Do we need something in addition to that? In my view we don’t,” said one official who requested anonymity because of the topic’s sensitivity.
A spokesperson for the car industry association ACEA declined to comment on the declaration because it is not yet public.
Car manufacturers and the European Commission have insisted that driverless cars will be safer and consume less fuel than vehicles currently on roads.
But environmental NGO Transport & Environment warned that companies shouldn’t use driverless cars to dodge stricter rules for other vehicles.
“Car and truckmakers are unrestrained in their enthusiasm for autonomous vehicles but much less supportive of fuel-efficiency standards for their cars and trucks which have much greater potential for CO2 savings,” a spokesperson for the campaign group said.
European Road Transport Research Advisory Council: "The political push given on the topic by the Dutch Presidency has been very welcome. Deployment of automated driving systems will anyway be a long and progressive process, because safety and interoperability need to be ensured."
Karen Vancluysen, the secretary general of Polis, the network of city and regional authorities on innovation in transport, said, "Most automation developments to date have been driven by the vehicle manufacturing community. The infrastructure and transport policy and planning aspects have largely been ignored. At least one reputable study has shown that if the introduction of fully automated cars in cities is not managed properly, there could be a substantial increase in vehicle kms travelled. City authorities do not want to see this happen. It is for this reason that there is high interest among local authorities in automated road passenger transport, which is the focus of the CityMobil2 project and which has seen demonstrations of fully automated low-speed shuttle buses in seven towns and cities across Europe.
"Furthermore, it is hard to envisage fully autonomous vehicles, ie, driverless vehicles operating independently of the infrastructure (ie, without vehicle-infrastructure interaction/C-ITS). Vehicle technology does not currently allow vehicles to see around corners, for instance, in between parked cars from which a child may suddenly emerge. Therefore, it is important for road authorities and operators to be associated with EU and Member State initiatives paving the way for the deployment of driverless vehicles."
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 organizing 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.
- 14 April 2016: EU transport ministers hold informal meeting in Amsterdam on declaration on driverless vehicles