The digitalisation of transport is expected to propel safer, friendlier and more equitable solutions. As part of the Digital Single Market Strategy, the European Commission aims to make more use of smart solutions to improve the way we use transport systems, as passengers and the economy
Rising traffic demand, congestion, security of energy supply and climate change are just some of the major issues being faced by the European Union and the wider world. And therefore the developing of a comprehensive strategy for sustainable and smart mobility, and ensuring a transport sector that’s fit for a clean, digital and modern economy, represent some of the most important tasks of the European Commissioner for Transport.
The long list of tasks includes the promotion of sustainable and alternative transport fuels for road, maritime and air transport, the modernisation of transport systems, such as connected and automated mobility, with a strong focus on digital innovation, swiftly completing the missing infrastructure links and the Trans-European Transport Network, and ensuring passenger rights while respecting the need for transport to remain affordable, reliable and accessible, particularly for low-income households and those in remote areas, as well as improving connectivity links, particularly in the EU’s neighbourhood and across the Western Balkans.
If these goals are fulfilled, everything about the way we get around and how we live our lives is set to change profoundly. The Joint Research Centre (JRC), the Commission’s science and knowledge service, called it a perfect storm of new technologies and new business models that will transform the way we think about our vehicles and the way we think about transportation.
Road and railway transportation will be automated, connected and low-carbon, and will include shared mobility. This profound transformation will include changes in data governance, infrastructures, communication technologies and cybersecurity, as well as legislation. Furthermore, this new approach will have deep impacts on the economy, employment and skills, energy use and emissions, the sustainability of raw materials, democracy, privacy and social fairness, as well as on the urban context.
These massive changes that are on the horizon represent an opportunity to move towards a transport system that is more efficient, safer, less polluting and more accessible to larger parts of society than is suggested by the current one, which is centred on car ownership.
Swiftly completing the missing infrastructure links and the Trans- European Transport Network, as well as improving connectivity links, particularly in the EU’s neighbourhood and across the Western Balkans, represent important goals within the current EU portfolio
In order for new transport technologies to make our lives better, the transport systems and policies have to live up to the demands of the 21st century. The improvement of governance and the development of innovative mobility solutions are crucial to ensuring a cleaner and more equitable future.
With its annual revenue stream of seven trillion euros, transport attracts disruptive technology companies that are not interested in preserving the current model in the way it works now. Today there are flexible options, like electric bikes and scooters, and soon modular automated shuttles may make public transport more accessible. The JRC study on road transportation in the EU envisages innovations that can slash costs and spur demand, while full automation will leave drivers without jobs. On the other hand, electrification will simplify production and lower running costs, while sharing can increase profits by making vehicles work 24/7 and use the road more efficiently.
JRC sees this technological upheaval as a unique opportunity to turn the transport sector upside down and make it more efficient and rational. “For example,” reads the study “greater automation and connectivity may allow for regulated access to the road which, in turn, could bring substantial benefits for traffic flow, transport efficiency and energy consumption”.
The research unit of the European Commission warns that, in particular, policymakers must take into account the fact that transport systems are extremely complex and their elements can often influence one another.
For example, it is expected that the railway sector will take a larger share of transport demand over the next few decades. The European Commission is working towards the creation of a Single European Railway Area and has promoted a modal shift from road to rail in order to achieve a more competitive and resource-efficient European transport system.
Indeed, according to the study “30 by 2030 – Rail Freight Strategy”, railways are becoming an attractive option to boost modal shift. For example, rail freight has a six-times lower specific energy consumption, mainly due to its intrinsic and persistent physical advantage of the low friction of steel wheels running on steel rails. This translates into six-times lower external costs compared to road transport, regardless of the energy source. In light of accelerating climate change, this makes current costs of rail transportation more advantageous than at present. The study claims that a higher modal share of 30% rail freight by 2030 is a better macroeconomic solution for European transport growth. However, this estimate was made before COVID-19 and assumed that there will be no further financial crises with a devastating impact on European industry and transport. Although we are today aware of the consequences of the pandemic, the EU is sticking firmly to its vision.
Yet whether the railway will prevail depends on many things. For example, projections of transport market growth suggest that the portion of goods with a low affinity to rail will increase, while goods with a high affinity to rail are likely to see a negative trend.
Furthermore, autonomous driving is expected to reduce the specific cost of road transport by substantial double-digit percentages by 2030. The study also suggests that in rail, asset replacement cycles are up to 10 times longer, which naturally limits the rate of innovation uptake, in the context of a relatively small rail freight supply market.
Unfortunately, providing sustainable financing models for rail freight undertakings is currently not a priority for many national policymakers, as they don’t see rail as the backbone or even an important part of mobility.