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Europe has long been considered a leader in the transit space. Thanks to compact, liveable cities that prioritize connectivity, Europe’s transportation systems are well-developed and effective. Whether it’s jetting between cities on high speed trains, busing into transit-only city centres or riding bikes in safe, dedicated bike lanes, Europe is already at the global forefront of public transportation. But the impending addition of autonomous vehicles is poised to change the nature of how cities move people. So how well is Europe equipped to add autonomous vehicles to the transit equation?

Integrating Autonomy

Europe is blazing a trail by shifting the focus of automation from private vehicles to public transport and ensuring that the future of automation is open to everyone. Here are the top three trends in Europe’s autonomous transit landscape.

1. Utility

When many North Americans think of autonomous testing, they jump to the Silicon Valley model, where private companies like Tesla and Google are trialling luxurious autonomous sedans costing hundreds of thousands of dollars. In Europe, things are different: autonomous testing is less glamorous, focused instead on utilitarian vehicles designed to serve multiple people. In Berlin, for example, boxy and plain-looking vehicles with room for 12 passengers are being tested as a public transit option. These the types of projects are important to ensure autonomous technology is not limited to extravagant personal vehicles—a potentially dangerous trend in the AV revolution.

2. Collaboration

In the United States, the lack of unified governance has resulted in a patchwork of regulations on autonomous vehicle testing. Without government consensus, it has been private companies leading the charge in the autonomous landscape, resulting in a focus on the private autonomous vehicle as a result. In Europe, on the other hand, governments are working together to regulate and direct driverless technology into the public transit sector. Last year, 26 European countries agreed to collaborate on testing autonomous technologies including automated minibuses. Through this framework, France and Germany have agreed to build a cross-border corridor for autonomous testing, paving the way for the integration of international autonomous public transit.

3. Publicization

Having a government lead the way in autonomous testing changes the nature of the amenity and widens its target audience. In the U.S., companies like Waymo, Tesla, BMW and Mercedes Benz are the main groups testing autonomous vehicles on American roads. The goal of these companies is to sell vehicles and make profit, which is expected to result in an increase in vehicle miles travelled as autonomous vehicles are released to the public. The European approach to testing has seen autonomous technology as a public amenity, with both governments and universities collaborating on solutions. This approach results in projects like mySMARTLife, an initiative funded by the European Union which is coming close to the public launch of autonomous shuttle buses in Finland. Furthermore, universities are getting involved in driverless technology research, resulting in more innovative transit solutions. For example, autonomous boats are coming soon to the canals of Amsterdam.

Lessons From a Global Leader

Smart cities do not need personal autonomous vehicles as much as they need autonomous transit solutions. Whether it is autonomous car sharing and taxi services or driverless buses, autonomous transit is the way to provide transportation solutions to the largest number of customers. The rest of the world can take cues from Europe’s central autonomous transit tenets.

  1. Autonomous vehicles do not need to be extravagant: utilitarian and functional might be the quickest route to autonomous public transit.
  2. The involvement of governing bodies helps to ensure that innovation is not fueled solely by private companies, whose first priority is the individual customer as opposed to the public.
  3. Universities and governments need to begin funding driverless transit research to promote more creative approaches to public transit and integrate autonomous vehicles in a truly impactful way,

Overall, Europe still maintains its position as a global transit leader, even when driverless technology is included in the mix. The lessons coming out of Europe need to be applied now to ensure that the rest of the world is not left behind as driverless technology changes the way we move.

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Image: Shutterstock / Photos by D