3rd Oct 2022


How the EU commission got tunnel vision on self-driving cars

  • The European Commission is convinced the self-driving car is coming - but who says so? (Photo: Ricardo Gomez Angel)

The European Commission is asking European citizens their opinion on self-driving cars, via a public consultation.

However, there is a key question that is not being asked.

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  • Google is developing its own self-driving cars. Google lobbyists spoke to the EU commission about its programme, but the commission did not make any records of what was said (Photo: Ed and Eddie)

Regardless of whether fully autonomous vehicles are technologically feasible - should we even aspire to have them on our streets in great numbers?

The framing of the public consultation, unveiled on 24 October, was emblematic of the commission's approach to autonomous cars, which has been developed over the past three years.

The self-driving car is coming, and Europe should prepare.

"Fully autonomous vehicles are just around the corner," the introduction to the survey said.

The commission wants to make Europe a "world leader" for automated and connected mobility, because of the enormous benefits.

"The objective is to allow all Europeans to benefit from safer traffic, less polluting vehicles and more advanced technological solutions, while supporting the competitiveness of the EU industry," the survey's first paragraph boasted.

But is the advent of the self-driving car really inevitable? Are those advantages indeed undeniable? And how did the commission arrive at this techno-optimistic position?

The 'trolley problem'

Last year, viewers of the Netflix series The Good Place were introduced to a philosophical dilemma known as 'the trolley problem'. It is a thought experiment on the ethical dilemma of being a trolley driver that, due to a technical malfunction, has to choose between killing five people, or one.

The trolley problem as made tangible by The Good Place

Marleen Stikker is head of the Waag Society in Amsterdam, an organisation that explores societal effects of technology.

In August, Stikker showed part of the trolley problem episode in Dutch interview programme Zomergasten, to explain why a fully autonomous vehicle is a bad idea.

For the self-driving car to be able to operate in a non-controlled environment - i.e. the real world - the car's producer would have to find a way to solve the trolley problem, and millions of other hypothetical situations.

Does a self-driving car kill five adults to prevent killing one child? What if there are six adults? Or seven?

For the autonomous car to work, a method to arrive at the right answer has to be programmed - quite the challenge considering that decades of philosophy have not solved the ethical dilemma for humans.

Based on ethical questions, Stikker concluded that, as a society, we should not be wanting a fully-autonomous car.

"Not everything that is 'possible' is 'obligatory'," she said.

'Teething problems'

The commission, however, seems to be of the opposite view.

In May 2018, it published a strategy paper on automated mobility, which contained some very deterministic language.

"Driverless vehicles will change our lives, just as steam trains and motor cars did before them," the commission stated.

"Once the current teething problems have been properly addressed - and they must be, driverless vehicles could significantly improve road safety since human error is estimated to play a role in 94 percent of accidents," the paper said.

The commission also said that it was "necessary to ensure that Europe remains competitive in all phases of driverless mobility, up to and including bringing these final services to our citizens and our businesses".

Where did these views come from?

Silence prior to 2015?

Before 2015, official commission documents rarely mentioned self-driving cars or autonomous or automated vehicles.

But in October 2015, the Brussels-based EU executive set up a High Level Group on the Competitiveness and Sustainable Growth of the Automotive Industry in the European Union - a 17-word name which received the acronym Gear 2030.

The group consisted of economy, industry, and transport ministers from 12 EU countries, representatives from the car industry, and several representatives of civil society.

Its mandate did not include questioning whether the self-driving car was a good idea.

The founding document tasked the Gear 2030 group with assisting the commission with finding which measures were needed "in order to facilitate the roll-out of autonomous and automated vehicles".

It is therefore no big surprise that the group's final report did not discuss if the EU should pave the way for autonomous driving - but how.

As for why, one key reason was straightforward: to make money.

"It is vital to strengthen the position of Europe as a world leader in innovative mobility and to create new global market opportunities for our industry," the Gear 2030 report said.

It said that by 2025, automated vehicles would make up an estimated 20 percent of the global market of new car sales - worth between €30bn and €60bn. By 2030, the estimated worldwide market would be 44m vehicles, the report said.

Not 'if', but 'when'

Was this an official EU estimate? No, the figures came in particular from one report from April 2015, titled Revolution in the driver's seat: the road to autonomous vehicles.

The 2015 report was written by the Boston Consulting Group, a US multinational management consulting firm, which last year posted global sales of $6.3bn (€5.5bn).

The company is even more deterministic about self-driving cars than the commission.

"It is no longer a question of if but when autonomous vehicles (AVs) will hit the road," the report began.

The authors of the paper envisioned several scenarios for the future of self-driving vehicles - and concluded that a government obligation for cars to be automated would be most important.

"The single strongest influence on the growth of the market for autonomous vehicles is likely to be the imposition of regulations mandating autonomy in new vehicles," they wrote.

It is not a strange thought, because fully autonomous cars would be able to operate better if all other cars were also fully autonomous.

The consultancy firm estimated that lawmakers would require at least five years of "demonstrated safety and economic benefits" before they would take such a step.

Convincing public is 'greater challenge'

Five months after the above-mentioned report, the Boston Consulting Group published another paper, titled Revolution versus regulation.

The second report was even more assertive in tone, arguing that the general public needed to be convinced of the benefits of self-driving cars.

"Achieving and maintaining societal acceptance is critically important to AV adoption. It may ultimately prove to be a greater challenge than technology development, with a more uncertain outlook," the authors wrote.

The authors were quite sure of themselves: "While it seems fair to assume that societal resistance is unlikely to completely prevent a technology that promises such large, far-reaching societal benefits, the objection certainly may delay adoption."

"The key challenge will be to ensure societal acceptance, even given the possibility of terrifying accidents, while at the same time balancing competing interests," the report went on.

It gave a recipe for how messages should be framed to convince citizens of the merits of autonomous vehicles.

"By stressing that AVs can save thousands of lives every year, allow their owners more time with friends and family, reduce the stress of congestion, save fuel, and protect the environment, [carmakers] and challengers alike can frame the promise of AVs in terms of their impact on the everyday lives of consumers, thereby generating emotional buy-in," it said.

Despite the need for such messages, the report claimed that the benefits for society were so great that the acceptance of the self-driving car was "all but inevitable".

The authors concluded the report by saying they were confident that industry and policy-makers would "overcome the societal obstacles discussed in this report".

Boston Consultancy Group

And the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) did not just publish the reports on their website in the hope that policy-makers like the EU commission would stumble on it by chance.

In December 2015, one BCG employee reached out to Germany's EU commissioner, Guenther Oettinger - who at the time held the digital economy portfolio.

An email from this person to Oettinger has been released by the commission at the request of this website - but with the name and function of the email's author redacted.

The email sender asked for the opportunity to share the group's thoughts on autonomous driving at the World Economic Forum at Davos.

The meeting did take place, on 20 January 2016 - less than a week before Oettinger attended the inaugural meeting of the Gear 2030 group.

However, the commission said it did not make any records of what was said during the Davos meeting.

Equally, no records exist for a 2016 meeting about self-driving cars held between Google and a high-ranking EU civil servant from the commission's directorate-general (DG) Mobility and Transport.

And the lobbying continues, mostly by advocates of self-driving cars.

Based on the EU commission's own reporting of lobby meetings and the documents subsequently released, there is no evidence that EU commissioners or senior officials have spoken to any sceptics.

Commission vice-president Andrus Ansip has met with representatives from international AI company Arago already twice this year.

According to minutes of one of the meetings, the firm's CEO called on the EU to "urgently [adopt] legislation that allows machines to make independent decisions", which it said was "crucial for self-driving cars".

In March 2017, the commission's DG for industry met with lobbyists from Uber, the ride-hailing company which like Google has a self-driving car programme.

A commission email said that the meeting was very short, because the Uber lobbyists "were an hour late".

In a follow-up email, Uber sent the commission civil servants it had met an article which argued that autonomous taxis could reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

"Shared mobility basing on self-driving cars will bring unprecedented benefits to cities," the accompanying email said, arguing that there would be fewer cars on the road.

'Very little is known'

But this is just a theory.

Last month, the New York Times published an article in which urban planning expert Peter Calthorpe argued the opposite will happen.

"Without pretty radically increasing the number of people per vehicle, autonomous systems will increase total miles traveled," he said.

Former EU climate commissioner Connie Hedegaard made a similar caveat, saying that autonomous driving itself is not a solution to heat-trapping emissions of greenhouse gases.

"It can be a nice thing because you can do other things while you drive, but that could in theory also just mean that you have even more people transporting themselves in cars," she told EUobserver.

The Gear 2030 report did acknowledge that autonomous driving could have negative effects, for example on the environment.

"Very little is known about the long-term effects automated and connected driving will have on vehicle use, traffic flows, public transport or the use of space (e.g. for parking or for spatial separated lanes for automated transport) as a result of freeing up of time for work or entertainment in the vehicle," the report said.

But such nuances and doubts are often lost.

A speech in September 2017 by EU commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic, in charge of the Energy Union project, is a case in point.

Initially, Sefcovic used careful language, saying that the concept of car accidents "might be something" future children will only learn about in history books.

But he quickly went on with more confident remarks.

"Connected and automated driving will be a major driver to reduce accidents, air pollution, fight climate change and reduce import dependency of energy - thus contributing to economic prosperity and political stability," he stated.

The human factor

In April 2016, transport ministers met in the Netherlands to discuss self-driving vehicles. Outside the meeting, such cars could be tested. One of the car industry's main lobbyists, ACEA secretary-general Erik Jonnaert, was one of the speakers.

EU transport commissioner Violeta Bulc in a self-driving car in Amsterdam, April 2016 (Photo: EU2016 NL)

Ahead of the meeting, transport EU commissioner Violeta Bulc had told journalists she would take a ride in a self-driving car herself.

Her remarks were made in the sobering context of the annual road safety figures.

"I really hope that we can come up with solutions that will eliminate a little bit the human factor," she said.

"Because what do we see? We see that human factor is failing over and over again," she said.

Indeed, when walking around in Brussels - where stopping at pedestrian crossings seems optional and drivers can often be seen using their phones as if they were already in a self-driving car - a technological solution seems a no-brainer.

But city traffic is too unpredictable for a self-driving car, said Radim Polcak, head of the Institute of Law and Technology at the law faculty of Masaryk University in Prague.

"It would be safe if we had only autonomous cars on the roads," he told EUobserver in an interview.

Car industry is 'so important'

Polcak said that the roll-out of autonomous cars will be slower and less ubiquitous than is currently being portrayed.

"I think our expectations are also derived, especially here in Europe, from the fact that car industry is so important," said Polcak.

"We have big carmakers and they are important, they employ a lot of people, so we put a lot of hope into this development because somehow we think that our car manufacturers will be a part of it," he noted.

A good example is Polcak's own country, the Czech Republic, where 3.2 percent of all jobs are in the car industry.

Polcak had spoken to EUobserver at a conference on artificial intelligence (AI) held in October in Brussels.

At the conference, Alessandro Annoni, researcher at the commission's Joint Research Centre, noted that while the technology will never be perfect, that should not be a reason to put on the brakes.

"We are not perfect ... Why we are considering an error from the machine more important than the error for humans," he said.

"It is clear that the self-driving car will save lives, but still, they will kill people," added Annoni.

"We need to act soon, quickly, and at European level, because no single country can compete alone against China or the US," he said, echoing remarks made at the conference by his director-general.

The fear of being left behind is clear from the commission's communications, as well as from one of its senior civil servants speaking at the AI conference.

"Cars have been remarkably unintelligent for surprisingly long," Ulla Engelmann said.

"But cars are about to become radically smarter very quickly, and then most countries will no longer be able to build a competitive car. Only the ones that are at the leading edge of AI and connectivity can," she said.

"Europe will only win the global AI race if we master the deployment of AI in industry," she added.

This is at the core of the commission's frame on self-driving cars: it is a global race.

And races are not won by discussions of whether one should enter the race to begin with.

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