The European Parliament, the deliberative institution of the European Union which also acts as a legislator in certain circumstances, approved on February 20, 2019 the European Commission’s proposal for a new Regulation on motor vehicle safety. The proposal is now set to move to the next step of the EU legislative process; once enacted, an EU Regulation is directly applicable in the law of the 28 (soon to be 27) member states.
This regulation is noteworthy as it means to pave the way for Level 3 and Level 4 vehicles, by obligating car makers to integrate certain “advanced safety features” in their new cars, such as driver attention warnings, emergency braking and a lane-departure warning system. If many of us are familiar with such features which are already found in many recent cars, one may wonder how this would facilitate the deployment of Level 3 or even Level 4 cars. The intention of the European legislator is not outright obvious, but a more careful reading of the legislative proposal reveals that the aim goes much beyond the safety features themselves: “mandating advanced safety features for vehicles . . . will help the drivers to gradually get accustomed to the new features and will enhance public trust and acceptance in the transition toward autonomous driving.” Looking further at the proposal reveals that another concern is the changing mobility landscape in general, with “more cyclists and pedestrians [and] an aging society.” Against this backdrop, there is a perceived need for legislation, as road safety metrics have at best stalled, and are even on the decline in certain parts of Europe.
In addition, Advanced Emergency Braking (AEB) systems have been trending at the transnational level, in these early months on 2019. The World Forum for Harmonization of Vehicle Regulations (known as WP.29) has recently put forward a draft resolution on such systems, in view of standardizing them and making them mandatory for the WP.29 members, which includes most Eurasian countries, along with a handful of Asia-Pacific and African countries. While the World Forum is hosted by the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE,) a regional commission of the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) of the UN, it notably does not include among its members certain UNECE member states such as the United States or Canada, which have so far refused to partake in World Forum. To be sure, the North American absence (along with that of China and India, for example) is not new; they have never partaken in the World Forum’s work since it started its operations in 1958. If the small yellow front corner lights one sees on US cars is not something you will ever see on any car circulating on the roads of a W.29 member state, one may wonder if the level of complexity involved in designing CAV systems will not forcibly push OEMs toward harmonization; it is one thing to live with having to manufacture different types of traffic lights, and it is another one to design and manufacture different CAV systems for different parts of the world.
Yet it is well known that certain North American regulators are not a big fan of such approach. In 2016, the US DoT proudly announced an industry commitment of almost all car makers to implement AEB systems in their cars, with the only requirement that such systems satisfy set safety objectives. If it seems like everyone would agree that limited aims are sometimes the best way to get closer to the ultimate, bigger goal, the regulating style varies. In the end, one must face the fact that by 2020, AEB systems will be harmonized for a substantial part of the global car market, and maybe, will be so in a de facto manner even in North America. And given that the World Forum has received a received a clear mandate from the EU – renewed as recently as May 2018 – to develop a global and comprehensive CAV standard, North American and other Asian governments who have so far declined to join the W.29 might only lose an opportunity to influence the outcome of such CAV standards by sticking to their guns.