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Differences in the autonomous vehicle landscape: Observations from America and perspectives for Europe

6 min read

Florens Gressner, CEO of neurocat GmbH

It is often said that Americans and Germans share a love of their cars. But do they share the same love for autonomous cars? I recently embarked upon a month-long road show in the United States to find out. As a European citizen, and CEO of a European technology start-up working on assuring safe AI perception for autonomous vehicles, I was eager to see how our friends across the pond were progressing in ADAS/ADS. What I saw gave me confidence in the future of fully autonomous driving, while also raising some concerns about Europe's place in that journey.

From novelty to commonplace

I landed first in California, a state known for setting the standards for the US automotive market and leading the way in technological development. My first impression of California was that it had an abundance of two things: sun and traffic. A lot of potential for autonomous driving then, and at least a few less weather challenges being presented to perception systems when dealing with the Operational Design Domain (ODD). 

It did not take long though for me to also get a feel for the scale at which autonomous vehicles and related mobility technologies are being deployed onto the streets. No, autonomous vehicles were not yet “everywhere”, but they were increasingly common – no longer a novelty that people stopped and stared at (except when they made meme-worthy mistakes). From on-street testing and to pilot business case uses, and from lower-level to even level 3 and 4 applications, autonomy was making its way into everyday life. In Germany, companies still struggle for permission to test even on limited sections of the autobahn. 

Leading through diversity

It was not hard to identify some core reasons for this difference in autonomous vehicle technology development and deployment. First of course is the high density of technology firms in the US interested in these technologies. The business value of ADAS/ADS technology is clear. Thus, many established and start-up companies are getting in on the game, bringing with them their own unique ideas, approaches, and technologies that will contribute to the marketplace of ideas and learning. 

Europe of course also sees the value of autonomous technologies, but it does have different social and investment preferences. A reason I saw more traffic in the US is that we in Europe typically have much better public transportation infrastructure. These mobility options draw some investment away from the automotive sector. Moreover, public transport competes head on with the convenience (e.g. work while commuting) of autonomous cars, diluting their potential market. Because public transport supports also other social preferences – such as less carbon emissions - autonomous vehicles will require another selling point to compete effectively. 

Yet ultimately a more important reason for the American lead is its regulatory landscape. It mirrors in some ways the competitive nature of the market itself. The American federal system, with its decentralized regulatory approach, creates a laboratory for experimentation in regulations. While the European Union resembles a federation in some ways, its regulatory approach is highly centralized in order to facilitate the common market. This uniformity can be advantageous for companies selling products and services, but less so for innovation. 

Risk and regulation

Looking at California, its regulations are somewhat of a contradiction: they set high and strict standards for emissions and safety, yet simultaneously have quite low entry barriers for on-street testing of autonomous vehicles. I was surprised when talking to my counterparts about their experiences in getting permission to test and operate their autonomous vehicles. It was so easy as to almost be trite, a concern not even worth management's attention, a simple administrative matter.  

In moving to deployment, not only regulation but also risk played a minor role in business calculations. Their attitude embraced a willingness to fail, to move fast and break things (sometimes literally), reflecting the general corrective and remedial approach to US regulation. I don't mean to imply our American friends are reckless, but they are well-insured. This approach stands in stark contrast to the European prescriptive approach based on the precautionary principle that seeks to anticipate the technology and regulate it before it hits the streets.

Approaches to the future

There is one more thing Americans have a reputation for having in abundance: enthusiasm. While I did observe this, it seemed to me to be tempered by a degree of realism, perhaps reflecting recent industry trends, competition law, and economic news. Those I talked to didn't seem like the startups of five years ago with exit plans to sell to Google. They saw hard business decisions, tradeoffs, and stiff competition ahead. Yet they seemed "in it for the long haul"; they wanted to build something permanent. 

Taken together with their willingness to experiment and fail, this could be called risk-loving realism. Europe is not so different in the latter point, being realistic in outlook, but in a risk-adverse way. This aversion is rationalized by higher values: protection of society and the environment, priorities given to areas of life beyond work, money, and production.

Reason for concern

While the values underlying the European approach are admirable, taken to their extreme, it could mean that when autonomous technology hits Europe's streets it will be American technology. There are three reasons for this if we consider my above observations: 

  • The autocatalytic process of testing vehicles in the real world, then (re-)training them with data collected during testing, promises to further the American lead in the race to full autonomy. Even if many of the current business endeavors do not survive, in failing they will contribute to the marketplace of ideas and learning.
  • The incrementally increasing prevalence of autonomous vehicles and functionalities in American public spaces will increase consumer trust though exposure and use. This will result in a large, receptive market being in place once the technology is ready and put American companies on firmer financial ground for further development and expansion.
  • The easy entry but diverse and sometimes high standards means that if you can make it in America, you can make it anywhere. Their technology will have been thoroughly tested on American streets. Ironically then, only it will have the capabilities needed to meet extensive European safety regulations.

Reason for hope and how to realize it

So what do my observations mean for the European autonomous vehicle sector? The first thing to bear in mind is that this commentary is a cautionary tale upon which we should – and I believe will – act. It is a possible path of future developments but not a prediction of the future because every development and action taken by our American friends, and indeed those in other global markets, will lead to responses and reactions.  

That begs the question then: what should our immediate response be? One thing that will strike any European visitor to the US is how different the road and transportation system is. It is a totally different ODD. The European firms seeking to master this ODD are often also taking very different approaches to developing the technology, in part because of the aforementioned regulatory constraints and social preferences.  

These differences between Europe and the US should not be seen as something that will consign Europe to be a follower. Rather they can be a means to further enhance the diversity of approaches to autonomous mobility and thereby enhance their capabilities. In America I found my colleagues more than willing to talk, exchange, and even explore future partnerships. We in Europe need remember we are not in a position of weakness, that we have much to offer, and then match the American's openness. If we not only compete, but cooperate and learn from one another, then our differences can be the source of our mutual success.

Tagged: EU · regulation · USA

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