Can the EU make our roads smarter, safer and cleaner?

The European Commission’s plans for road transport are hugely ambitious: it wants to modernise mobility, making it cleaner, smarter, and safer. The third Mobility Package, unveiled by the Commission on May 17, covers everything from heavy-duty vehicle emissions to rules for self-driving cars, as it aims to set the pace in legislation on smart vehicle technologies. But can these measures untangle the knots of congestion and pollution on Europe’s roads while still getting people and goods from A to B?

The latest proposals are mainly focused on boosting intelligent transport systems (ITS), including automated and connected cars; curbing CO2 emissions from trucks and buses; and increasing the uptake of electric cars in the European market. These measures have ethical, legal, financial, economic, and technical dimensions

Push for autonomous cars

The most eye-catching measure is a €450 million commitment to invest in road and telecommunications networks to support driverless cars.

The Commission is calling for collaboration between the EU, member countries and industry to ensure interoperability for the communication technologies needed for vehicles to speak both to each other and to the wider infrastructure. The Commission will also set up a team of ethical experts to answer questions for autonomous vehicle programmers, such as how cars should behave in an accident.

EU Transport Commissioner Violeta Bulc said the plans, “address the challenges of today and pave the way for the mobility of tomorrow”. EU Climate Action and Energy Commissioner Miguel Arias Cañete said, “These emissions standards represent an opportunity for European industry to consolidate its current leadership position on innovative technologies.”

Safety is a key motivation for the push. A number of studies have shown that autonomous cars could dramatically reduce road accidents – up to 90% according to a 2016 report by McKinsey & Company. There are efficiency reasons too. Truck makers have been testing driverless convoy concepts for over a decade: they promise fewer vehicles and drivers on the road, and better traffic management.

But where does the EU stand in the global debate? Both the United States and China are drafting rules to allow driverless cars to operate across their countries. While there is currently no EU-wide legislation for autonomous vehicles, Germany and the UK want to introduce rules to let self-driving cars onto the roads.

The EU is striving to be part of a global push for automated and connected driving, but only 1% of the EU automotive market is currently electrified. This raises the question about whether the Commission’s ambitious targets are more about fulfilling its climate change promises before the end of its mandate, rather than fulfilling a genuine desire to modernize the transport system.

Cleaner trucks and buses

As well as the ITS proposals, there are measures aimed at curbing CO2 emissions from heavy goods vehicles – trucks and buses – which are currently around 19% above 1990 levels. The plans say emissions must be cut by 15% by 2025 and 30% by 2030 compared with 2021.

The target is a compromise: the European car making association ACEA wanted it to be 7% in 2025 and 16% in 2030, while environmental campaigners demanded cuts of 45% by 2030. However, the target fills an important gap in the EU legislation: unlike the US, China, Japan and Canada, the EU has no limits on CO2 emissions from trucks.

Trucks and buses account for less than 5% of all vehicles on the road in Europe but are responsible for almost a quarter of road transport’s greenhouse gas emissions – which would rise 14% by 2030 in a business-as-usual scenario. If the EU wants to deliver on its UN climate change commitments, and its own 2030 targets, truck emissions need to be curbed. Again, there is competition from outside Europe: China is cranking up production of electric trucks and buses and is now increasingly pushing into Europe’s mobility market.

Another incentive has come from the Dieselgate revelations in 2015 that Volkswagen installed devices on diesel cars to cheat emission tests. This led to a halt in various fiscal incentives for diesel. However, there is still concern that Dieselgate is merely getting people to switch to petrol engines, rather than to electric vehicles.

There is also pressure from businesses: an alliance of global brands, transport companies and haulier associations last month demanded CO2 cuts of 24% by 2025. IKEA, Unilever, Heineken, Nestlé, Carrefour, logistics giant Geodis, national transport associations and other big players said in a letter to Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker that the EU needs to stick with its transport emission target if it is to remain a leader in the fight against climate change.

Ready for an electric switch?

All this should push European manufacturers to work even harder to switch to low or zero emissions, and to integrate smarter technologies into their vehicles.

Until recently, there were few alternatives to the combustion engine, but that is no longer the case. Toyota’s Prius and Tesla have shown that electric cars can compete with the best of the fossil fuel establishment.

Yet the market share of electric vehicles is still stubbornly low in most EU countries. This appears to be due to a shortage of models for consumers to choose from rather than, as some motoring groups claim, because of a lack of infrastructure such as public charging points. Indeed, the Platform for Electromobility – whose 31 members include Renault-Nissan, Tesla and industrial giants Siemens and Alstom – found that there are about six electric cars for each charging point, almost twice as many as the 10 cars per point recommended by the Commission.

Campaigners like Transport and Environment (T&E) complain that car makers have spread a myth that electric fleets are ready and only waiting for the infrastructure to be built. T&E chastises car makers for launching only a handful of fully electric models: just 20 battery electric vehicles on sale in Europe against 417 conventional petrol and diesel ones (and some of those electric models are on limited supply with months-long waiting times).

This is where the EU could come in, by setting new targets, or offering incentives to change purchasing habits. The European Environment Agency (EEA) has found that taxes and incentives do affect purchases of new cars: people buy vehicles with lower CO2 emissions when governments give them some help.

It ties in with the roll-out of automated cars. Public support is key to the success of this technology: not everyone is ready to accept that self-driving cars are as safe as those driven by real humans.

Nonetheless, change is coming. This latest Commission mobility package is the third after previous ones in May last year and in November looking at road tolling and CO2 emissions for cars. It is a cross-cutting subject that covers transport, the environment, energy, research, privacy and safety. It is complex, and everyone in the road transport sector will need to keep a keen eye on developments and stay actively engaged in the EU and elsewhere. But it is clear that Europe’s drive towards cleaner, smarter and safer vehicles has now shifted to a higher gear.

Authors: Selma Abdel-Qader, Chiara Gaudenzi-Morandi and Anett Toth

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