COPENHAGEN – The ITS World Congress kicked off here Monday and Tuesday amid a general sense of optimism about the opportunities provided by new technologies to make public and private mobility smarter.
At the same time, participants at the annual event focused on the barriers to implementation, setting the stage for five days of discussions that are expected to cover every aspect of today’s transportation revolution.
The congress is the largest of its kind focused on intelligent transport systems (ITS). It brings together more than 10,000 ITS experts from the public and private sector as well as researchers, engineers and students. The conference, which is held in different parts of the world, is organized in Europe by ERTICO, the regional ITS organization.
In the opening sessions of the five-day conference, which has as its motto “Quality of life,” experts were excited by the potential of new transportation-related connected technologies.
“We will be presenting the key innovative and disruptive technologies with the potential to have the greatest impact on urban quality of life, along with the partnerships that are making these possible,” said Ertico CEO Jacob Bangsgaard.
Added Kenneth Leonard, director of the US. Department of Transportation (USDOT) Intelligent Transportation Systems Joint Program Office: “We’re on the cusp of monumental change.”
But experts also were open about the major issues they face as they work to provide cleaner and more efficient transportation options. In one of the opening sessions, they looked at some of the challenges in introducing autonomous driving, one of the megatrends for the automotive and transportation industries.
With regard to the regulatory environment, Nynke Vellinga, who is doing advanced research on the legal aspects of the AV revolution at the University of Groningen in The Netherlands, said it is unclear how the Geneva and Vienna conventions, which govern traffic regulations in most countries, can be changed to accommodate driverless cars.
Both conventions assume a human driver is in charge, which is a requirement that will have to be altered in favor of rules that target the vehicle. The other major problem that needs to be addressed is liability or who is responsible for the vehicle. “This is ultimately a political issue,” Vellinga said.
“Very extensive changes” to both conventions may not be feasible, the researcher said, and she suggested that a better route might be to opt for a more flexible interpretation of existing rules.
Louis Fernique, a senior French government official who runs the country’s Robomobile Life” workshop, also provided a reality check to the growing optimism that a smarter transportation infrastructure is just around the corner.
He said that his workshop, which is scheduled to run for more than a decade is heavily committed to academic research for providing some of the answers to the world’s growing mobility problems. “The auto industry is involved but has a different vision,” he said.
Fernique said the AV revolution, much like the advent of the smartphone 10 years ago, is driven by market forces, but doesn’t have a proven usefulness to consumers. “The user value remains relatively vague,” he said, adding that consumers aren’t yet ready to accept the argument that AVs will free up time and provide additional safety.
Adeel Lara, a senior researcher at the University of Minnesota, said the benefits of autonomous driving are clear, but states lack the funds to help realize the required new infrastructure. He also said no-one knows whether so-called vehicle miles traveled (VMT) will actually rise or fall with the coming of AVs.
The World Congress takes place in Copenhagen, which has as its policy goal to become the first major carbon-neutral city in the world by 2025. The Danish capital counts heavily on bicycles as a means of reaching its goal and, with the help of an extensive cycling infrastructure, it has already achieved success in reducing car traffic.
Today, roughly 45 percent of Copenhagen residents bike to work for an aggregate 1.4 million kilometers a day. The city also boasts more bicycles than people and it claims only 29 percent of city households own a car.
But officials also acknowledge the difficulties of changing established transportation modes. Said Karsten Biering Nielsen, deputy director in charge of technical and environmental issues in Copenhagen: “It takes time to optimize new technology.”
One of the stumbling blocks in global efforts to introduce new, more sustainable modes of transportation has been the need to coordinate between the various stakeholders, which include city governments, automakers, public transportation authorities, telecommunications companies and others.
Ertico CEO Bangsgaard said he saw progress on this front. “No sector can develop smart-mobility solutions on its own,” he said.
The auto industry is an essential player in this cooperative constellation and Ludger Fretzen, executive director, group strategy new business at Volkswagen Group, said the carmaker has at least part of the solution in house. “Mobility of the future is a joint task,” he said.
Fretzen underlined how VW has made new mobility initiatives a top priority and cited a “dramatic” change in the way the carmaker is approaching its business. “Our company is changing; cars are not everything,” he said.
On the first day of the gathering, there was general agreement among officials and executives at the World Congress that there is an urgent need to address growing traffic safety problems, ever increasing urban congestion and the negative impact on people’s health resulting from transportation and traffic emissions.
The transport sector is responsible for almost one quarter of all air pollution in the European Union and huge numbers of premature deaths, EU Transport Commissioner Violeta Bulc said in an opening address to the conference.
She also noted that traffic congestion reduces the bloc’s GDP of roughly 30 trillion euros by around 1 percent. “That’s a huge price to pay,” she said.
The ITS World Congress runs through Friday.
-By Arjen Bongard