Pieter Morlion: ‘Legal framework for autonomous car needed now’
That the autonomous car is coming is a fact and probably (hopefully) a cure for many mobility problems. That’s why traffic expert Pieter Morlion, co-founder of the Ghent Traffic Center (Verkeerscentrum Gent) urges the authorities to create a unique legal framework for it as soon as possible.
End of last year Flemish Minister of Innovation Philippe Muyters declared he will spend 3 million euro for a test zone with autonomous cars on the Antwerp ring road. Traffic expert Pieter Morlion has some questions regarding this initiative. The most important question is “what do we want to achieve adopting autonomous cars?”.
Learn from the past
“We can’t reiterate the mistakes of the past. At the end of the 19th century we faced huge problems with… horse mobility. The ‘automobile’ was the saviour and authorities were so happy with it they didn’t think about possible negative effects when everybody would be buying/owning one. Today we are still suffering from this, spending a lot of valuable life time in traffic jams.”
Morlion sees autonomous cars as a positive evolution, but he has some remarks. “In Lisbon the National Association of City Transportation Officials made a simulation: what if all transportation needs were fulfilled with autonomous cars? You’d probably only need 10% of today’s fleet to meet mobility needs. But these autonomous cars will drive much more, which is also to be taken into account.”
“To make autonomous vehicles better is an engineer’s task, but it is the duty of authorities/law makers to challenge the industry and the car lobby to maximize the potential and to minimize possible counter effects.”
Morlion proposes to consider the autonomous car a totally new category of transportation. With specific rights and duties.
Clearly defined rules
“It is possible to get rid of fossil fuels within one or two generations, but then you have to forbid now that future autonomous cars are driven by combustion engines. Another crucial point is that autonomous cars have to be shared instead of owned to make them most efficient. Otherwise we’re bound to stand in autonomous traffic jams in the future.”
Our traffic expert is not convinced people are ready for it yet. “Here’s where the authorities’ role is coming in. An important shift in mentality like this one needs an intelligent governing. In the coming years we’ll have the historic opportunity to tackle the social cost of mobility (1.900 euro per year for every Belgian citizen, also when he’s not owning one).”
Let the user pay the costs
“Now is the moment to let the user pay the costs. Today we have identification systems to read number plates and subsequently tax owners of vehicles, in the future you can tax the occupants of autonomous cars themselves. That’s a much more efficient way to ‘reward’ or to ‘punish’. You can tax per kilometre and have more rights for elderly people or inhabitants of the area.”
And what will be the benefit of all this? “The road tax (a huge amount of money in this case) could be used to give each citizen a free mobility package, kilometres that could be used on trains or buses, on sharing bikes or using taxis – and in a somewhat further time frame – in the autonomous car.”