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European Commission seeks to ‘grasp the reality’ of future mobility

Automakers may be lobbying for electric robotaxis, but with the final say in the hands of the regulators, they too must be closely involved in the discussions. By Freddie Holmes

Connected, autonomous, shared and electric (CASE) vehicles all form part of a collective push to improve the quality of life for people around the world. However, while the automotive industry continues to make progress in developing these technologies, a broad range of regulatory bodies will ultimately decide what makes the cut. Automakers and suppliers will certainly play a key part in those discussions, but governments will have the final say.

With this in mind, those tasked with overseeing the deployment of innovative technologies on public roads are not sitting idly by. With Europe one of the front runners in the so-called ‘future mobility race’, the European Commission-Joint Research Centre (EC-JRC) is immersed in its own research activities to better understand what should be deployed, and the most efficient way of doing so. In June 2019, it published a report on the future of road transport to help inform policy debate in the European Union. Within its findings is the suggestion that a ‘perfect storm’ of technologies and business models is set to shape how goods and people move.

An open conversation

From the report’s findings, the EC-JRC urges policymakers to ensure that new technology makes future transportation systems cleaner and ‘more equitable’, with a nod to today’s ‘car-centric’ society. In short, it wants to ensure that technology is only ever deployed where it can make a real difference.

We need really to consult with industries in order to grasp the reality of the situation… Public bodies cannot simply make a decision on their own

The conversation around future mobility is something of a step change for organisations such as the EC-JRC, which have long been tasked with making incremental improvements to the efficiency of combustion engines, improving road safety standards and managing traffic congestion through traditional means. Today, talk of removing drivers, replacing engines with electric motors and encouraging citizens to consider giving up their cars is relatively new territory.

Monica Grosso is Transport Economist at the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre, and is closely involved in researching the socio-economic impact of future mobility solutions. In order to inform the decision-making process, EC-JRC team is carefully considering the potential benefits and negatives of the technologies being proposed. This requires cross-industry conversations, she explains. “Organisations, public bodies and member states definitely have a say, but we need to consult with industries to grasp the reality of the situation,” she told M:bility. “Otherwise, we could just produce something out of the blue that does not meet the needs of the people. It must be an interactional process—public bodies cannot simply make a decision on their own.”

EVs and AVs

With many of the CASE technologies in limited production runs and others only in early R&D phases, deciding what should come into public hands in the coming years will be a challenging task. As it stands, electrification is arguably one of the more advanced elements of the CASE acronym, and thus the benefits are easier to envision. “One of the major benefits of CASE is reducing energy consumption,” said Grosso. “Electric vehicles (EVs) or other types of alternative propulsion are definitely positive in this sense.”

By comparison, fully autonomous vehicles (AVs) are some way off, and should not be confused with the semi-autonomous ‘driver assistance’ features on the market today. “It is more difficult to grasp the benefits of the full deployment of an AV,” she continued, “because it has not happened yet. But considering the number of accidents that are caused by human error—above 90%— I can imagine that there will be a major benefit to introducing cars that rely on a system that is much safer.”

One of the major benefits of CASE is energy consumption. Electric vehicles (EVs) or other types of alternative propulsion are definitely positive in this sense

Consumer trust can also be tough to gauge; many will only be familiar with the concept of a driverless vehicle, or robotaxi, from mainstream media reports. “We really need to take stock of what society thinks, and how it is approaching these new technologies,” said Grosso. “The industry can go as far as it wants with the technology, but if no one trusts the system no one will use AVs. We really need to take all these elements into consideration.”

All together now

Calculating the benefits of each technology in isolation may prove too challenging, and certainly at this early stage. But look at the big picture—safer vehicles on demand, designed for all potential riders and with zero emissions—and it all starts to make sense. The sharing aspect could prove particularly important in avoiding a scenario where access to robotaxis simply makes things worse. “Combining all of these different technologies and business models is important, including shared mobility. If you take an AV or an EV on its own, the possibility of reducing traffic congestion is not as clear,” explained Grosso. “Looking at the whole picture together could really bring the expected benefits.”

Since the mid-1970s, the European Commission has carried out studies to gauge the sentiment of particular social groups towards a given subject or concept. Past surveys have looked at anything from climate change and inter-generational mobility trends to passenger rail services and autonomous systems. In 2014, a report on the perceived quality of transport (422a: ‘Quality of Transport’) found that mobility plays a “fundamental role” in daily life and business, with the estimated annual transport budget of the average EU household said to be €4,530 (US$5,036) at the time.

Somewhat unsurprisingly, convenience and speed were found to be by far the most important considerations behind transport decisions. In addition, frequent service, better coverage and cheaper ticket options were the most likely to encourage Europeans to use public transport more often. While the report is five years old, it does provide useful context to what Europeans want, and how mobility services need to play their cards.

These governing bodies are under no obligation to approve all solutions, but the need to curb the high frequency of traffic fatalities and rising vehicle emissions does mean the pressure is on

Upcoming barometers will look at how European citizens view the impact of AV technologies, advised Grosso. “We will be launching a survey on AVs as we want to know a bit more about peoples’ current expectations,” she said. “This will give us a much broader view of the overall European sentiment toward AVs.”

The regulator’s role in deploying technologies that automakers have already invested billions into cannot be overstated. These governing bodies are under no obligation to approve all solutions, but the need to curb the high frequency of traffic fatalities and rising vehicle emissions does mean the pressure is on. As the 2019 EC-JRC ‘Future of Road Transport’ study warns: “Today, uncoordinated competition among service providers and a lack of leadership by transport authorities are leading to more traffic problems […] Left unmanaged, such changes may widen the gaps in our societies.”

This article appeared in the Q4 2019 issue of M:bility | Magazine. Follow this link to download the full issue.

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