Commission should ‘pick right battles’, says road transport head

Matthias Maedge [Photo: IRU]

This article is part of our special report Road transport’s future challenges.

Ursula von der Leyen’s new Commission should look seriously at making sure transport rules are well-tailored to different types of vehicles, while taking advantage of several “low-hanging fruits”, according to road transport association chief Matthias Maedge.

Matthias Maedge is General Delegate at the International Road Transport Union’s (IRU) Permanent Delegation to the EU in Brussels.

He sat down with EURACTIV’s Sam Morgan.

What is your view on the new European Commission, announced last week?

Looking at the appointment of the new Commission, we take note that environment and digitalisation are spearheading UVDL’s team. Executive vice-presidents will be supporting the future transport Commissioner, in the sense of greening and modernising transport.

We certainly hope that the Commission’s choice of working on important subjects affecting our sector, with three different Commissioners will be efficient. We’re looking forward to close cooperation with them. For us, it’s fundamentally important that we drive the agenda together, delivering services for society.

We want to remind everyone that a modal shift policy is counterproductive to the Commission’s own pledge when it comes to road service demand. Freight is set for a 60% increase, passengers a 42% increase, by 2050. So how does a modal shift discussion fit into that? We want to see a transport policy that has modal or intermodal cooperation instead of prioritising certain modes.

We’re not convinced at the moment that the prioritisation of digitalisation is moving forward the way it should. But we’ve got strong hopes with the new Commission.

Was the previous Commission efficient? 

It was a massive problem but the Commission admitted that. It said on various occasions that it was struggling to get out of its silos. The issues affecting our industry are linked to various Commission DGs after all, so we hope it’ll be different with the new executive.

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Commissioner Violeta Bulc said last week before the von der Leyen announcement that she supports the transport portfolio remaining intact rather than being split between other policy areas. Are you glad it has panned out that way?

There was a discussion on potentially appointing a mobility Commissioner. We believe that would have made sense and it could have simplified matters and discussions. The issue and the business is challenged by so many changing things.

The last Commission, take the Mobility package as an example, simply mobilised certain things too late. That’s led to delays, lack of clarity, the next Commission will have to pick up stuff left over.

We’re here to suggest things the Commission simply has not thought about, like access to the market for taxis and ride-hailing services. You see a disruption in Europe there, with the taxi market being liberalised across the EU. That’s raising lots of questions, so harmonisation of rules is key.

The Commission at least is aware of that but we’d like to see a legislative proposal. There’s one already for bus and coach services and that should be adopted.

Let me put to you a specific scenario: I’m a 16-year-old interested in getting in to truck driving. What’s stopping me doing that at the moment?

At the moment, young people interested in that profession are prevented from getting in to it by the current rules. Countries apply different strategies and rules that prevent young talent from getting training. There are kilometre limitations, age difference, cross-border discrepancies and more.

It does not make sense that we have different rules, 18 should be set as the harmonised age when it is legal. EU law actually says that but it is not mandatory, countries interpret it as they wish.

What is driving your sector’s shortage of professionals?

We have to make the job more attractive, firstly. Take the issue of visa applications, needed for international transport. Leaving and entering the EU is a common occurrence because big corporations have factories outside the EU.

And there we have a problem: if you’re crossing from Turkey into Bulgaria, you can expect to wait two days for clearance. That puts prospective drivers off. Visa applications have to be online, as a start. EU policy can do a lot to attract talent to the profession.

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Is that all that puts off prospective drivers or are factors like safety an issue?

Indeed, safety is a concern and when we talk about that we have to consider secure parking areas, because hotels are not a solution.

As well as the safety side, there’s also the question of infrastructure. Can drivers shower? Is there somewhere to eat? We want to attract women to the sector. Only 2% are female at the moment. Safety is a big part of that drive. It isn’t just long-distance routes either, there’s a lot of national services that require overnight parking.

How do you judge what is and what isn’t a safe parking area?

There is work to be done on standards. We concluded a European project on the issue but the Commission has not yet put in place a mandatory standard, through an implementing act.

Now it’s a case of discussing with other stakeholders and the new Commissioner how funds under things like the Connecting Europe Facility should be split up. 100,000 parking spaces are missing. If someone wants to build new ones that don’t adhere to the safety standard we want, should they get that funding?

A pragmatic approach is needed there, in upgrading existing parking facilities and building new ones.

Are drivers the only ones let down by the current rules or are companies not happy either?

Take passenger transport as an example. There’s a difference between truck and coach drivers. The Commission has completely overlooked the needs of coach and bus drivers when it comes to rest and drive-time rules, as there’s no flexibility at the moment. Truck rules are applied, which simply does not make sense. The European Parliament actually proposed a compromise on this as part of the mobility package but it was sacrificed as part of talks on truck rules.

Using a bit of our industry as a bargaining chip was an unacceptable solution. We’ve been promised by the Commission that in return for our support of the truck rules, they will amend the bus and coach rules accordingly.

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On environmental issues, what changes can the road transport sector make to cut emissions?

One piece of low-hanging fruit is high-capacity vehicles. A number of countries already allow them, in Scandinavia and the Iberian peninsula, but there is no harmonised framework. Only part of Germany allow them, for example.

Emissions could be reduced by up to 30% by using them, as more goods can be moved by fewer vehicles. Better aerodynamics of trailers and cab design are another factor.

What are the obstacles then?

There’s a lack of awareness and misconceptions about it. Certain stakeholders have torpedoed an idea that we think is the best innovation out there in terms of efficiency and the environment.

Terms like ‘monster trucks’ were very negatively annotated. We don’t understand the objections or lack of political willingness.

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But is European infrastructure ready for high-capacity vehicles?

They are better for infrastructure because of the reduced axle weight! We’re confronted with bridges that are no longer able to carry the transport volume expected of them. Every second bridge is under construction. The fatal incident in Italy was unacceptable.

Then there’s the push for battery-power, which means heavier vehicles. What will that do to infrastructure? An innovation like this has to be put into practice, away from emotions and lack of harmonisation.

What about powertrains?

There are other means of improving CO2 emissions that just putting all the pressure on the fuel. It is a collective issue. There is now a dominant debate on fuels, which is an important part of decarbonisation.

But before you make an aggressive push on rapid change, you have to realise we lack an holistic approach on the difference between commercial vehicles and passenger cars.

Take the Eurovignette case: there’s a push for cars to be included later than buses and coaches. Why? It makes no sense whatsoever. Buses take cars off the road. Good infrastructure and services take cars off the road.

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How quickly could operators ditch combustion engines though? Particularly buses.

A study we carried out said complete renewal of half Europe’s fleet could not be possible before 2035.

But mayors are now taking it upon themselves to exclude combustion engines by 2025-2030. That would kill the commercial market and services if the right incentives aren’t put in place first.

Governments and mayors have to harmonise their approach. Moreover, private operators are not going to switch to hybrids if they’re not subsidised. The costs are nearly double.

Electric battery power seems to be problematic when it comes to heavy haulers. How do other options like hydrogen fare in your view?

We have a few members who have made pre-orders in some innovative truck models. Those companies are pioneers that want to drive the change and have the financial capacity to do so. It’s effectively a test for them. Factors like autonomy and charging or refuelling time are the important things to consider.

We’re an agnostic industry and battery-power is not the best solution for all or even most applications. Even with our members who provide taxi services, they’re reporting dissatisfaction with charging. Time is money there and it’s lost every minute extra spent on recharging. The technology is not mature for our industry yet.

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The incoming Commission will be tasked with reviewing some of the transport legislation agreed by the outgoing executive. What changes will you be looking for there?

CO2 measuring methodology is one of them. We have to adopt a well-to-wheel approach. The efficiency of the vehicle and the decarbonisation potential of the fuel both have to be taken into account, because tail-pipe counting only isn’t enough. We’ll bet on the wrong horse otherwise.

Implementing that in 2022 is the time to do it and to ensure all new vehicles as of 2025. The EU will fail badly on its climate goals otherwise.

Where can the new Commission really makes changes to transport policy?

Amending existing legislation and designing an incentive scheme is the way forward. The Commission’s focus on electric-charging should also be targeted on urban areas, it’s not a long-distance solution, so don’t waste money on chargers for trucks that aren’t even on the market yet.

They need to pick the right battle and not just continue with what the last Commission did without listening to the industry.

Road transport is seen as the bad guys, because of Dieselgate and other reasons. But when you look at the internalisation of external costs, buses and trucks have the lowest carbon footprint compared to all other modes. A shift policy isn’t the right move.

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