Cars that are highly ‘self-driving’ will not be allowed to drive on Belgian roads for now. Mobility Minister Georges Gilkinet (Ecolo) remains interested in self-driving cars, but there is still too much uncertainty regarding safety.
Among others, his Flemish colleague Lydia Peeters, the French-speaking liberals MR, and the mobility organization Touring are unsatisfied with the minister’s position. On the other hand, the British Government does want to allow fully self-driving cars on the roads from 2025.
Mercedes’ ambitions dashed
On the initiative of Emmanuel Burton (MR), the Belgian parliament approved in March 2022 in the committee a resolution on self-driving cars. Among other things, the text called for a definition of these vehicles to be included in the traffic regulations and for tests on self-driving cars to continue in Belgium.
In Germany, some Mercedes-Benz SAE Level 3 autonomous driving models are allowed on the highway, as in the US. That means the car takes over the wheel, allowing the driver to do other things, such as playing a game on the vehicle’s infotainment screen. However, the driver must always keep their face visible to the vehicle’s in-car cameras – so taking a nap in the back seat is out of the question.
In other words, the driver must be able to retake the wheel at any time. Moreover, it can only be done in daylight, in a traffic jam, and the speed limit is 60 km/hour. Mercedes-Benz hoped to offer the Drive Pilot system in Belgium too, but that legal permission will not come, says Minister Gilkinet.
Technology is not to the point
Minister Gilkinet is not in favor of the technology: he considers it an intermediate form of autonomous driving – people sitting in their cars playing games, for example, are not alert enough to intervene quickly if necessary.
Gilkinet also points out other drawbacks. For instance, self-driving cars can also get stuck in traffic jams and cause pollution. Moreover, for long journeys, it is better to encourage people to take the train rather than sit in a self-driving car because on the train, they can also rest.
Self-driving vehicles are particularly interesting for the logistics sector, for example, in industry, says Gilkinet. “We have already done several studies around that, and a pilot project is also running around that.”
Most operators of autonomous vehicles, including Waymo and Cruise, seem to agree with Gilkinet: they, too, think Level 3 is too dangerous and prefer the next-generation technology, Level 4, a system that requires no human interaction.
Indeed, several studies have shown that the transfer between the automatic system and the human driver can be particularly tricky, such as overreaction when they suddenly must retake the wheel in an emergency.
The minister insists that he does want Belgium to be at the forefront of self-driving cars. However, therefore, there are still many questions that need to be answered in terms of safety and responsibility.
“This development is a real revolution,” Gilkinet says. “It undeniably raises road safety questions to which I expect convincing answers. Once we have these answers, we can consider moving forward.”
But not everyone is on the same wavelength. Stef Willems of the road safety institute Vias, for example, warns that technology is unstoppable, even for passenger cars. It would, therefore, be just right to organize pilot projects to evaluate the technology.
Mobility organization Touring disagrees with Gilkinet’s position. Touring believes that automated vehicles can be a big step forward regarding road safety but can also have resolutely positive effects on traffic flow and, thus, environmental impact.
Touring, therefore, believes that we should not nip these opportunities in the bud and that pilot projects around autonomous vehicles should be allowed and set up as a matter of urgency.
Slowing down technological improvement that is in full swing and coming anyway will never have a lasting positive effect, the organization argues. Moreover, it wears our position compared to neighboring countries that ambitiously keep up with technological innovation.
Touring is also shocked by the minister’s reasoning. “He advocates less clean, less smooth, less safe, less comfortable car traffic, just to avoid widening the gap with the train. That is a destructive strategy.”
MR is “surprised and appalled”
The French-speaking liberal ruling party MR says it is “surprised and appalled” by Gilkinet’s statement on self-driving cars. The part urges the minister to continue the dialogue with the regions on technology and the development of pilot projects “to identify the potential of these vehicles better, the possibilities for their future introduction, and the strengths and weaknesses of our road and highway infrastructure so that such vehicles can safely circulate in the future”.
Concerning the regions, at the end of September, the Autonomous Transport Taskforce was already launched in Flanders. This should steer the rise of autonomous transport in Flanders in the right direction and give maximum support to new pilot projects.
As far as Flemish Mobility Minister Lydia Peeters is concerned, autonomous mobility “is a reality we cannot avoid”. Flanders will, within its competencies, further “take up a participative role” to guide the market.
Germany, a forerunner in the EU
Since July last year, self-driving vehicles have been allowed on Europe’s roads. Only that concerned Article 34 bis of the Geneva Convention, which also clearly stipulates that “the driver must keep his eyes on the road at all times”, still must be transposed by all member states into their own legislation so that the measure can take effect.
In May last year, the German Government was the first to approve the Level 3 automated driving system in Europe. Besides the Mercedes-Benz ‘Drive Pilot’, the BMW 7 Series recently received approval from the German Federal Motor Transport Authority.
Tesla, on the other hand, still must make the jump to the Level 3 system, but apparently, it does not do so because of Elon Musk’s strange aversion to lidar, a system that uses lasers to determine range and distance.
Soon also in the UK
Meanwhile, the UK government has also given the go-ahead for a law to allow self-driving cars on UK roads. Charles III said this on Tuesday, during his throne speech that opened the parliamentary year, outlining the Sunak government’s policy plans for the following year.
The Government says its Automated Vehicles Bill will provide the sector with the certainty and confidence it needs to develop the technology in the UK. The legislation will create one of the world’s most comprehensive laws for autonomous vehicles.
According to insurance AXA, it’s estimated that the self-driving industry will be worth 42 billion pounds, or 51,4 billion dollars, and create up to 50 000 highly skilled jobs by 2035. A legislative framework opens opportunities for businesses to capitalize on this.
AXA also says that “research shows that 88% of road collisions involve an element of human error which would be eliminated with self-driving vehicles”.