To maximize the benefits of autonomous vehicles, regions must reach common ground in their policies


The surge of development of automated driving of road vehicles is a combination of a pull from technology and a push from industrial policy, spurred by the potential of a disruptive entry into the car market by the likes of Google and Apple.

Car manufacture is a major part of the economies of many European industrial nations and has far-reaching supply chains. Hence, ensuring that your national part of the industry is at the leading edge is important, particularly given the need for economic growth and employment. What is less clear is the impact that the need to make the industrial policy a success will have on other policies. In addition to transport policy itself, there are implications for employment, land use and health policy.

The car manufacturers are aiming to replicate the human driving experience with robot control under user-selected conditions. This retains a consumer model of vehicle purchase and leasing. There may be benefits in terms of safety, congestion and emissions, but these have yet to be established and could easily be outweighed by an increase in car use and driven miles, because if a sufficient amount of the time at the wheel can be put to other use, actual journey time becomes less important.

Automating the driving of buses and trucks has huge implications for employment. It could drive down the cost of transportation further and lead to an increase in driven miles. Any reductions in emissions and safety gains from robotic control could also be wiped out by this increase in use. If automated driving makes travel by road more attractive, the overall situation could be more congestion, which, while it may be of less concern to the automated vehicle user, may bring great challenges to other road users and to those who live and work near major roads. Unless increases in distance driven are matched by reductions in vehicle emissions, the impact on public health could be to worsen a situation that is already cause for alarm. Should automated driving only be available on zero- or low-emissions vehicles?

The interaction between all these policy areas is complex and the mix varies hugely across regions. The 28 nations in the EU have some common goals at the high level, but at the detail level, where the devil lies, they are, and are likely to remain, very different. For the industrial policy toward automation to succeed, the products and services need to be able to be sold into regional-level markets with minimal local change. If the cross-policy effects are different between countries, this may be very difficult to achieve. How will automation play out between the environmentally aware Nordic countries compared with the highly congested central areas of the Netherlands, Germany, Belgium, southern UK and northern France, or the areas in the south and east of the EU that still face major economic challenges? There is policy development taking place, but it needs to pick up the pace, be more cross-cutting and, above all, evolve at a pace that keeps up with the technology. Otherwise we may be faced with a single-minded policy in one area that creates huge unforeseen consequences in several others.

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