Autonomous cars are at the door. Drones encroach on our lives. Electric cars are on the rise. These technologies will have a tremendous impact on our daily lives in the near future, and so will have to be closely monitored, as well as promoted, in terms of development.

We spoke to the European Transport Commissioner, Violeta Bulc, about what issues and hurdles rapid development may encounter.

The era of the daily use of autonomous cars is just around the corner. Some car brands have already announced some self-driving models to be released in 2017 which, in certain conditions, will be capable of fully-autonomous driving, meaning that the driver will no longer have to control the vehicle, nor will he or she be responsible for its actions. Do you think that's a realistic announcement for the year to come?
Plug-in and autonomous vehicles are more and more topical. I had the opportunity to take this technology for a test run, and I believe that this is one of the biggest technological shifts that will occur in transport in the years to come. The reasons that motivate us to remain as proactive and supportive as possible are clear: this technology will have a direct and quantifiable societal, as well as economic, impact. I am most excited about this being a social innovation, though: the autonomous cars will introduce somewhat normal, mobile life even to the individuals who, up to this point, could not take part in it. I'm talking about the older demographic, people who struggle to move around on their own. We are further convinced that the number of accidents will decrease significantly, as will the number of fatalities, since the human factor, human error, is still one of the most common causes of transport-related accidents. So, I am convinced, and I expect to see autonomous cars hit the roads across the European Union before the end of my mandate.

What about the ecological side of it?
Yes, this is the third important aspect of this revolution, which I was about to mention. With calm, predictable and well-thought-out driving, we can substantially reduce energy consumption, as well as air pollution. Moreover, improvement will touch also on better control over traffic distribution, especially during congestion and rush hour. There are plenty of reasons that pinpoint just how important this development is, but we also count on the reasons being sufficient for consumers to recognize and embrace the advantages of this technology.

Similar to the electric vehicles, will this call for financial support, through benefits, perhaps subsidies?
Right now, it doesn't seem that will be necessary. I believe that the new investment policy within this field will grant faster development, mainly due to more favorable investment conditions, mostly in the sense of infrastructure adaptations and better funding. This is why we haven't yet discussed subsidies.

Do you think consumers will recognize autonomous technology in vehicles as a tool to facilitate transport in their personal vehicles, or more as a mobility service that may result in a change of attitude towards car ownership?
Car manufacturers are increasingly more aware that a sharing, collaborative economy will bring entirely new business models to the world of transport. This is the reason German manufacturers joined their forces, to test and develop new business models. Nevertheless, I don't think that's the end of personal vehicles. In Singapore, for instance, where public transportation is extremely efficient and cars extremely expensive, people still opt to purchase a car, they just use it less often, in favor of public transportation or car sharing. I think that, in the next ten years, our understanding of transport and mobility will change dramatically, and that's what we've been preparing for. Not only through legislation, which will have to be revised, but also by way of devising standards for solutions to become as economical, affordable and unified as possible, across the entire European economic area.

Will autonomous technology first gain a foothold in personal transport or in freight transport, which is much more orderly, structured and cost-sensitive?
In this moment, the development seems to be going hand-in-hand. In freight transport, the very first, albeit partial, autonomous solutions are already here. I'm talking about the so-called "platoons," trains of vehicles where only the very first truck is operated by a driver, whereas the rest are connected via an intelligent network and follow in its track automatically. The first results indicate that these technologies will be first in use in countries with most suitable geographical and transport conditions, like The Netherlands, for instance, where such technologies are already seen on the streets. Straight flat roads without substantial climbs and descents are the best fit for this technology.

"I am most excited about this being a social innovation, though: the autonomous cars will introduce somewhat normal, mobile life even to the individuals who, up to this point, could not take part in it."

Electric cars are a step or two ahead of autonomous vehicles, but they do require a well-developed charging infrastructure. The European Union is financially hugely supportive of its development, but it seems that the already-developed markets are prioritized time and again. Why is that?
Electrification of transport calls for a systematic approach. To develop a network of charging stations may sound simple--you set up a station, you plug it into the electrical main, and that's it. But that's not how things work. In practice, we place a lot of importance on the energy grid, the availability of smart networks and smart gauges for measuring consumption, which means that countries with more progressive, better-developed energy grids are at an advantage, and find it easier to carry out the electrification of transport. Of course, we co-finance the development of charging station networks, mostly across the nine transport corridors, which are the spine of European transport. The countries adjacent to these corridors may apply for funding towards building a network of rapid charging stations in their periphery. Nothing can be done if we don't have a grid, which feeds these stations. As a result, transport is ever more integrated with the power industry, and the future will depend greatly on how we approach this as a unity. The countries where this has already taken off, like France, Ireland, Germany, the Netherlands, are faster at building charging station networks. In my opinion, the electrification of transport will skyrocket, not only when it comes to personal vehicles. There are also ports and airports, and this is where electrification matters as well, since more than 24% of European CO2 emissions come from transport. Our promises are clear: reduce emissions, not only through electrification, but also by transferring the freight transport from roads to rail.

"Of course, we co-finance the development of charging station networks, mostly across the nine transport corridors, which are the spine of European transport."

Talking about charging stations: I noticed similar trends that once plagued mobile telephones. Random roaming, high charging rates outside of domestic grids. Some operators, such as the Austrian Smatrics, are charging at an astonishing 60 cents per minute, in return for their service, which amounts to at least 18 Euros per 100 kilometers. Is this something you will be able to redress through a new regulatory framework, before it escalates into a jungle of rates and charging systems?
I think this will be a very steep learning curve, considering the experiences with telecommunications, though I am positive that we will not take the same path and make the same mistakes again. Much can be shortened, and many invaluable lessons can be drawn from there. Things progress really fast, though. A very important strategy here will be decarbonization. It will be introduced in the second half of the year, and will contain all the necessary action planning, which will allow us to draw up a new regulatory framework. There are eight transport directives, which will regulate this area, that are being currently processed and will be adopted in January next year. It's very important that we correctly regulate the system from the outset, which is also the plan for the toll collection system. Unified and standardized for the entire Europe, the latter will boast universal standards and a well-regulated digital data exchange program. But yes, this area has been subjected to regulations. We know what needs to be done, while at the same time, we are also very encouraging of the energy sector of the economy, to ensure smart networks and an adequate energy distribution.

That has been a problem, hasn't it?
Yes. These systems were very centralized, and now they're challenged to provide networks that are better-distributed, more flexible, and to become more flexible themselves. I hope their response will come fast enough.

What's new in the area of drones? Close encounters with passenger airplanes are becoming more common, and we still don't have legislation that would regulate that at the EU level?
Drones are certainly one of the new technologies that have been recognized in Europe as an opportunity for new business models in logistics, which is why we set out to regulate this field last April. First we put together a declaration on drones, whereupon we also proposed regulation and standardization models, as a constituent part of the EU aviation strategy. The European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) is already processing the necessary regulatory alterations. Things are moving along really fast, and the new regulatory framework should be approved in June. Next, we will have to prepare the implementing acts. Things are on fast forward also because we're the EU-leading institution, when it comes to commercial drones. If we want for the industry to develop further and maintain the leading position, so as to provide new jobs and stimulate economic growth, we must be quick and do our job well.

What will be at the core of this new regulation?
Because drones are seen as multi-purpose tools, they have been divided into three categories. The first are those intended for personal use, entertainment, and these are referred to as in the "open" category. It's important that this type of drone, which comes with limitations, always remains within the line of vision of its user. Then there is also a special category and a certified category, both of which have more specific requirements: drones must be registered and contain special hardware and software that prevents their use in restricted areas. Operators will, of course, need to have a license, which will, in the certified category, bear much resemblance to that of a commercial pilot. Safety and security are very important elements in looking at new legislation, as well as noise protection, privacy and more. In addition, we do not deal only with drones, but the whole concept of urban airspace. Urban mobility of the future also includes small aircrafts, with or without a pilot. As a result, we have already begun to lay the foundations of urban airspace, where we will set the basic rules of flying in urban areas. This is a project that must be completed within the next two or three years.

Due to the fact that autonomous vehicles, the use of drones and the like may be considered services, is it more complicated to establish such regulations?
No, not really. Fundamentally we have to look at it as a service, and not a device. We learned that in the realm of drones. Instead of talking about the characteristics of the product, we must determine the service features. The characteristics of the product through which those services are performed are not difficult to standardize. Even in the train transport system, you sell transportation services, not train wagons themselves. Regardless of the manufacturer, the services must be within accepted standards. Therefore, we are not dealing with the kind of technical characteristics of the drone, how big or how powerful its engines are, but rather what features it should have, in order to provide its intended service, safely and effectively.

July 25, 2016 Living photo: Primož Predalič

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