International cooperation must drive autonomous cars
Imagine a world where you can relax in your car, while it is driving by itself. Where elderly people can remain mobile and where your car will park itself when you tell it to. Imagine a world where we have drastically reduced the number of traffic accidents.
This world may not be that far away. While the motor industry’s 120-year history is an impressive succession of innovation, we are standing before what could be the biggest quantum leap forward in automotive technology in history.
Over the past months, barely a week has passed without automakers or technology companies announcing their plans to develop self-driving, or autonomous cars. The technology is developing fast, with these new cars being tried and tested from California to Singapore. Now, we must work together to create the legal and physical infrastructure to fully realize this technology.
Autonomous cars have the potential to change the life of billions of people and fundamentally change how road transportation works. They can create a safer, more efficient and environmentally friendly commuting experience. This would also fundamentally change the global automotive industry, which employs some 50 million people and represents a turnover of almost $2 trillion.
Thousands of lives could also be saved. Traffic accidents kill 1.24 million people per year and injure, some 50 million people, often severely, and many of the world’s cities suffer from chronic traffic congestion and pollution. The new technologies can address many of these issues.
The autonomous car will have a constant 360 degree view around it. The car can have more information and faster reaction times than any human driver. Additionally, if cars are able to network together, they can work cooperatively to reduce congestion by regulating traffic and determining the optimal speed, saving billions of dollars. Also, as frequent acceleration and braking during congestion leads to more fuel use and therefore more air pollution, less congestion would bring substantial gains in human health and in tackling climate change.
In addition, autonomous cars could dramatically foster social inclusion by offering disabled people a new means to access the job market and society as a whole. They could also reduce the isolation of elderly people allowing them to stay connected and to commute.
However, all these benefits will not come at once and will not come by themselves. Autonomous cars raise as many questions as they offer potential benefits. These include: liability, insurance regimes, safety standards, software reliability, and cybersecurity, to name just a few. Providing an appropriate and balanced answer to these questions will be a prerequisite to the mass introduction of these vehicles to the market.
Some answers are already being developed. The World Forum for the Harmonization of Vehicle Regulations, operating under the auspices of UNECE, is assessing proposals covering semi-automated driving functions, such as autopilot systems to be used in traffic jams, self-parking functions and highway autopilots, which will ultimately pave the way for more highly-automated vehicles.
In 2014 the 1968 Vienna Convention, which stipulates that the driver must remain in control of the vehicle at all times, was amended to ensure that safety rules do not hamper the advancement of new technologies aimed at improving road safety.
These are important first steps. But a lot remains to be clarified and agreed upon. Several countries are launching projects for testing these emerging technologies, understanding that this is key to keeping their auto industries competitive. They want to move ahead, and rightly so, but they should resist the temptation to regulate at national levels. Divergent national legislation would not only hamper international trade by introducing new technical barriers, but would also significantly complicate international traffic.
This is why we need international cooperation. It is only through regulations based on the most widely accepted standards and on consensus among experts from all over the world that we will be able to embrace all the promises of autonomous and intelligent vehicles. For instance, to reap the benefits from connectivity (including vehicle to vehicle or vehicle to infrastructure communication) harmonized information and telecommunication standards must be developed to ensure interoperability and economies of scale. This has yet to happen.
Fortunately, the means to integrate these future standards into international regulations already exist within the World Forum. This week the global car industry is meeting in Geneva to showcase the most recent technology with companies presenting their finest cars and vehicles.
I invite all parties involved, countries, the motor industry, the telecom and software industries, as well as other standard developing organizations to step up their engagement in the coming months and years to amend the transport conventions hosted by UNECE to provide the legal framework and regulations necessary to pave the way for autonomous cars.
We have the tools. These technologies are around the corner. Let us all work together to bring the benefits of future autonomous cars to people all over the world.
If you wonder why the animal accompanying my blog is a cow, it is because cows are fascinating animals; the cows of our host country, Switzerland, are famous for their quality; and because I am still a farmer, and miss the cows I had in Denmark. Now I got one back.