The EU wants to beat the U.S. to self-driving cars.
But it’s losing the race.
U.S. policymakers released guidelines for the next generation of automated driving, addressing everything from consumer protection to safety last month — to the applause of carmakers and advocates. To head off a patchwork of disparate regulations across the country, the document also offers a model state policy dealing with vehicle licensing and registration, insurance issues and more. Transportation officials are taking other steps toward regulation that will address vehicle-to-vehicle communication technology.
“All of these are really important conversations and this one is starting here in the U.S.,” Ford spokeswoman Christin Baker said.
The EU is talking the same talk but has far less to show for it: Three different European commissioners — one on digital, one on transport and one on the internal market — are each leading separate conversations to discuss elements ranging from telecoms to car-to-car communications. They’re all still in the consultation phase — trying to figure out what the big players, like car companies and consumer bodies, actually want to do.
The EU’s Transport Commissioner Violeta Bulc might offer a master plan by year’s end, but it likely won’t produce tangible results until 2019. Internal Market Commissioner Elżbieta Bieńkowska aims to have some sort of roadmap sketched out by as late as 2018.
Navigating the EU is more complex than the U.S. because European roads are bound by the United Nations’ 1968 Vienna Convention on Road Traffic limiting self-driving cars to no more than 10 kilometers an hour. While a review process to update them was recently completed, the EU still needs to adapt new rules to national laws.
Yet the need for self-driving safety rules is growing more urgent as innovation overtakes regulators: During an Uber pilot trial in Pittsburgh, a self-driving car went down a one-way street in the wrong direction. It prompted the question of who would be responsible if that scenario happened in the future.
“There are so many actors involved in the discussion,” Czech Liberal MEP Dita Charanzová said. “What’s missing is getting everyone on board … We are lagging behind.”
‘Let innovation flourish’
The guidelines the U.S. released in September were developed over years and provide a vision for regulating the up-and-coming sector and remaining flexible as the technology evolves. U.S. transport officials have received widespread praise for their flexibility and for both offering direction to and taking direction from the industry.
“We don’t want to say, ‘You have to use radar to deal with X,’” one U.S. Department of Transportation official said when the guidance was announced. “Right now is the inappropriate time to do that. Right now is the appropriate time to let innovation flourish to make sure that we get best, safest outcome.”
The guidance targets states, including Michigan and California, that have begun drafting rules for the burgeoning technology. The centerpiece is a 15-point safety assessment that outlines everything from consumer privacy rules to dealing with any lapses in self-driving technology’s effectiveness.
Companion guidelines on vehicle-to-vehicle communications are set to be released in the near future. With technology farther along than autonomous vehicles, that guidance will carry more regulatory heft as well.
“The United States has become effectively a first mover from the national guidance,” said David Strickland, a U.S. lobbyist for the self-driving car industry. “It’s always easier for every manufacturer and innovator to have a global regulatory environment that is consistent.”
U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said formal regulations will be needed soon.
“We’re doing everything we can within our authorities. But there will come a point where our ability to do it in the executive branch is going to end and the role of Congress is going to have to” begin, he said.
Toyota has already called the new guidelines too vague — especially because at least one U.S. state, California, is thinking about making portions of the new guidance mandatory.
“I can’t stress [enough] how bad this is,” said Hilary Cain, director of technology and innovation policy for Toyota. “So if we don’t do what’s being asked of us — voluntarily — by [the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration], we cannot test an automated system in the state of California. That is preposterous.”
‘Acting in their own microcosm’
In the EU, the car industry and consumers are concerned the conversation isn’t moving forward quickly enough. There aren’t even guidelines like the U.S. now has.
“It looks very fragmented,” said German Socialists & Democrats MEP Ismail Ertug, who is organizing a series of events on self-driving and connected cars in the European Parliament to encourage conversation and break the legislative gridlock. “Everyone is acting in their own microcosm.”
The Commission has supported the development and innovation that self-driving cars can bring but done little to draft new rules or change existing ones to foster the technology.
Negotiations are ongoing to turn the updated Vienna Convention into EU law, possibly by the middle of next year. Other types of transportation or car regulation have largely been left untouched.
“Efforts to remove these obstacles are slow and not sufficient to open up for truly autonomous vehicles on European roads by early next decade,” said Anders Eugensson, the director general of government affairs at Volvo Cars. “This means Europe risks lagging behind the U.S.”
Digital Commissioner Günther Oettinger has urged Europe to push ahead more quickly, but with little success.
“Just think about the developments in the United States and the announcement of President [Barack] Obama to make available significant funding for connected vehicles. We have to take the step to the next stage,” he told the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona earlier this year. “Europe needs to be the first to deploy connected and automated driving.”
Critics say that although Oettinger has touted the cause at multiple events, he has done little more than to coordinate a new group of car and telecoms companies who will work towards developing them.
Bieńkowska has been even less ambitious. In an interview with POLITICO, she acknowledged she might have to leave the bulk of self-driving legislation to her successor, who would take her portfolio in 2019.
Participants in her department’s Gear 2030 roundtable, which is responsible for discussing the future of cars in the EU, have little to show for their conversations. A source involved in the discussions said they were slow-moving at best. Topics such as liability and safety were on the table but no stable conclusions have come out of the talks.
The initiative closest to being enacted comes from the EU’s directorate general in charge of transport. The C-ITS discussion group will issue a master plan on vehicle-to-vehicle communication by the end of the year. They hope to begin supporting self-driving car technology … by 2019.
Impatient countries forge own paths
That means the EU landscape will be marked by countries that charge ahead on their own.
Sweden, for example, has loudly supported its self-driving car industry and associated trials. Volvo will unleash 100 automated cars in the city of Gothenburg early next year for testing and pioneering technology. The Netherlands has tried to clarify highway and road rules to encourage testing and the development of self-driving tech.
With some EU countries leading and others lagging, self-driving car development is likely to to be very uneven. Many are resigned to the industry becoming yet another EU loss in the global tech competition.
“I’m afraid Asia and the U.S. are completely first on this,” MEP Charanzová said.
This article is part of a POLITICO Special Report: The future of driving.