EU Commission drives home merits of autonomous vehicles

Can driverless cars chauffeur people to a love of the EU? The European Commission is betting it can.

Christmas came early for automated driving enthusiasts this week. Convening a two-day summit in Brussels on the subject – the first of its kind – the European Commission promised a sack of goodies in the form of dedicated funding, regulatory changes, cross-border agreements and innovation stimulus.

Driverless trucks could be a reality on European motorways within two years, officials said. They would first operate in convoys where the first truck is driven by a human being but all the trucks following are driverless.

It’s the first step in a roadmap, to be published by the Commission as part of its transport strategy on 31 May, that could see driverless cars integrated with traffic by 2025.

“Owning a non-autonomous car will soon be like owning a horse,” said Carlos Moedas, the EU commissioner for research, science and innovation, who spoke at the conference.

Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has identified driverless vehicles as an area where the EU can deliver tangible benefits to citizens. In his five-scenario white paper on the future of Europe, released last month ahead of the EU’s 60th anniversary summit in Rome, connected and autonomous driving (CAD) was used repeatedly as an example of something that cannot become a reality without the EU.

In a scenario in which the EU downgrades to only a free trade zone, “Europeans are reluctant to use connected cars due to the absence of EU-wide rules and technical standards,” the paper concluded.

Three weeks later, national leaders signed an agreement in Rome to not only allow cross-border tests and experiments but also to establish one single point of contact in each country to approve them.

Highway cruising

Trucks are expected to be the first to go driverless, both because they drive on motorways and because they are the most commercially interesting. Though convoys following a lead driven vehicle will be the first step, the next step will be completely independent automated trucks.

Motorways present the safest environment for CAD because they are free of pedestrians and are more or less in a straight line. They are also more uniform throughout Europe. In the very near future trucks will be driven within cities by a driver, but then dropped off at the motorway to continue its journey alone. When the truck arrives at its destination, a new driver would pick it up at the motorway exit.

“Lisbon to Warsaw today is four and a half days, but that could be brought down to one and a half,” José Manuel Viegas, secretary-general of the International Transport Forum at the OECD, told EURACTIV.com.

“It’s very useful for trucks and buses not only because it would save on labour costs and operation, but because it could operate 24 hours a day.”

This article by Dave Keating | EURACTIV.com can be found at EURACTIV