It's a Good Thing Europe's Autonomous Car Testing Is Slow

(Bloomberg) -- Europe’s slower and more regulated testing of autonomous vehicles may reduce the likelihood of the kind of accidents seen this week in the U.S., industry experts said.

Executives at carmakers on Tuesday also advised the industry take its time to get the technology right, after an Uber Technologies Inc. autonomous vehicle fatally collided with a woman in Tempe, Arizona on Sunday.

“The U.S. is in no way reckless when it comes to autonomous driving tests -- but in Europe and especially in Germany, rules are a notch stricter when it comes to putting cars on actual public streets,” said Harald Proff, an autonomous driving expert at Deloitte. “That sometimes means things aren’t moving as fast, but all this is meant to avoid exactly those tragic accidents.”

European countries have been hesitant to allow private companies to test commercial automated vehicles on their streets. Cars with similar capabilities to those used on public roads by Uber have been deployed in Europe, but projects are typically confined to private streets, or restricted to very low speeds.

Tesla, BMW

Uber’s accident has echoes of Tesla Inc.’s fatal crash in 2016, when one of its models, driving on a function called Autopilot, hit the trailer of a truck after it didn’t notice the vehicle against a brightly lit sky.

BMW AG Chief Executive Officer Harald Krueger -- unveiling an autonomous partnership a day after U.S. investigators started probing Tesla’s accident -- repeatedly noted “safety comes first” at the time, adding that technologies weren’t yet ready for general production. BMW is currently testing more than 40 vehicles in Europe, the U.S., Israel and China, and it’s planning to sell an electric car for autonomous driving on the German Autobahn in 2021.

At a press conference Tuesday, Volkswagen AG CEO Matthias Mueller encouraged the industry to wait for investigations into the collision to conclude before speculating on future repercussions.

"Autonomous driving presents an unbelievable change," he said. "It will take many years before we see a car with level 5 autonomous-driving functions on the roads. Just look at how difficult the change from combustion-engine cars to electric cars is."

Germany, U.K.

In Berlin, a project due to begin next month is a far cry from what’s happening in the U.S.: Four autonomous buses will ferry doctors and staff across the private grounds of the city’s Charite hospital -- along pre-defined routes, away from public streets, and at maximum speeds of 20 kilometers per hour (12 mph).

The U.K. has also remained cautious but has allowed public testing. The nation’s biggest car manufacturer, Jaguar Land Rover Automotive Plc, began piloting driverless cars on public roads last year, and the government has said it would invest 200 million pounds ($280 million) in researching and testing necessary infrastructure in order to become a "leader" in the industry.

In France, legislation has adapted over the past two years to allow for more experimentation in autonomous driving, including on open roads, yet rules are still very strict. Projects are limited to small geographic areas, and self-driving vehicles are usually only allowed to drive at higher speeds in areas where there aren’t any pedestrians, such as on highways.

They also require for a certified human to be on-board at all times to take over in the event of a malfunction, but this isn’t a guarantee to prevent accidents; the Uber vehicle involved in the fatal crash was operating in autonomous mode under the supervision of a human safety driver, according to the Tempe Police Department.

“The question of regulation or free experimentation of autonomous vehicles is part of a broader cultural debate in Europe,” researchers at industry group La Fabrique wrote in a report in December. “Europe is more inclined to protect citizens from unknown or potentially dangerous technologies, rather than race for innovation and progress.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.