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Will road vehicle automation help solve urban transport problems?

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Vehicle automation has received much attention worldwide. But EU policymakers are not giving enough attention to the impact automated vehicles may have on sustainable mobility policy, therefore turning opportunities for automation into threats, writes Karen Vancluysen.

Karen Vancluysen is the Secretary-General of POLIS, the European network of cities and regions on innovation in urban mobility.

Policy makers at EU and national level are not giving enough attention to the impact automated vehicles may have on sustainable mobility policy. This risks turning the opportunities for automation into threats.

Vehicle automation has become a trending topic worldwide. Following significant media coverage, people are becoming aware of the potential benefits that the widespread use of automated vehicles (AVs) may bring in the future, for example, road safety improvements or less congestion. Nevertheless, business announcements about the imminent arrival of ‘autonomous cars’ may be misleading for several reasons.

First and foremost, a problem of definition arises. The US Society of Automotive Engineers has classified the levels of automation on a scale from 1 to 5. In levels 1 to 4, certain driving functions are automated in specific environments whilst in level 5 all driving tasks are automated in any environment. Headlines rarely consider this fundamental difference. This is creating expectations that the end of manual driving is near and that fully driverless cars could soon be a reality on our streets.

Does automation lead to an increase in total vehicle kilometres?

The introduction of automated vehicles could have adverse effects if not accompanied by effective policies addressing urban mobility issues. Take congestion, for instance: a recent study commissioned by the City of Amsterdam suggests that there might be a shift from more sustainable transport modes such as public transport, walking and cycling to automated motor vehicles (whether privately owned or shared). This would lead to an increase in total vehicle kilometres with all the well-known negative impacts on the environment, health, and safety.

Potential road safety benefits are a key driver for AV developments. Current road engineering measures (speed bumps, traffic calming) and enforcement can be expensive for the road authorities and are not always effective. Consequently, vehicles that are programmed to respect speed limits are appealing to road authorities. However, the safe interaction of AVs with other road users in the long transition phase, especially cyclists and pedestrians, is a key issue that needs to be demonstrated.

Cities and regions engage in research and trials

Cities, regions and their transport authorities play an instrumental role in the roll-out of automated vehicles. Some of them are taking part in key projects that help the global community to understand the legal, transport and policy impacts of automated transport.

One example is the CityMobil2 project, which for the first time in Europe tested an automated passenger transport system in public urban spaces from 2012 to 2016. Another, the CoExist project, is using four European cities as models for analysing the effects of automated vehicles on urban road infrastructure in a context of “co-existence” with conventional vehicles. The experience gained in these projects enables road authorities to understand the likely impact of automated vehicles and to plan accordingly.

Local and regional authorities raise questions on the benefits and the impact of automation on mobility in urban areas

Such initiatives demonstrate the substantial financial investments made by national and European institutions to support automation research, development and demonstration. However, the development of a comprehensive policy framework on automated vehicles at European level is equally important to enable local and regional authorities to develop local policies that ensure vehicle automation will help solve transport problems.

Consulting systematically cities and regions in the process of defining policy on automated vehicles and paying greater attention to sustainable mobility goals is necessary to ensure that the introduction of automated vehicles brings the benefits that Europe’s citizens expect.

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