If you read a lot of tech news, you’d think we’re merely months away from being able to hail a robotaxi in Europe. Unfortunately, this will be wrong: because those articles are most likely talking about projects in North America. The EU approach to autonomous ride-sharing and ride-hailing is vastly different to the US. Currently, there are robotaxis (and a few roboshuttles*) in the US, but only roboshuttles in Europe. This difference between the two locations comes down to two things: regulations and ideology.
The US vs EU: Regulation
In the US, passenger vehicles must comply with Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards, but autonomous vehicles are governed at the state level. This means certain areas can decide to go all in on the technology. Things are very different in Europe. While the US hands over responsibility to each state, in the EU, it requires agreement across multiple countries.
In July 2022, the EU passed the General Safety Regulation, which is the first legal framework to allow automated and fully driverless cars to become available on European roads. Member states hope its deployment will boost innovation and improve the competitiveness of the bloc’s car industry. While Europeans have taken a more methodical, cautious approach, the collective R&D and cross-industry collaborations (Europeans love a committee) are kicking things off. And this is where we get to the ideology part of the argument.
ECOLOGY & IDEOLOGY
European ride-hailing companies aren’t hurrying to embrace autonomous vehicles. Carlos Herrera, CTO at Spanish ride-hailing company Cabify, said that the current safety and quality of service is inadequate. He asserts, however, that his company is always happy to consider any solution, “as long as it is in line with improving cities and making them better places to live. But first, the focus must be on reducing emissions to zero now.”
At a time of financial uncertainty, these businesses are focusing on meeting their carbon emission targets. This expensive enterprise involves replacing ICE fleets for EV, not investing in autonomous vehicle tech. Again, very unlike the US.
In addition, 45% of people living in the US have no access to public transportation. The country is built far more on private vehicles, rather than communal ones — no surprise when you think of the size of the country. Most people ride in private cars, and since investments in public transport are lacking, cities see autonomous ride-hailing as a way to get people away from car ownership. By comparison, Europe has a more robust public transport network. This suggests robotaxis are a long way from any semblance of mass deployment, let alone full-scale national operations — and Europe has, so far, sidestepped much of this huge outlay.
And now we can see why Europe doesn’t have robotaxis yet: it has a more robust public transport network, tougher regulatory hoops to jump through, and not as much private investment. All this leads us to the following question:
So WHEN can we ride in a robotaxi in Europe?
Christian Gnandt, VP of Automated Driving at TÜV SÜD, thinks robotaxis will arrive “within the next years.” He suggests the most important thing is “not that every single car is driving autonomously in every condition. But it’s really about a specific area under certain assumptions, maybe a certain township of a city and nice weather conditions. This will be the next step.” With all of this to reckon with, Europe’s slower, more cautious approach to autonomous vehicles and their socio-economic implications ultimately puts Europeans in a better position to enjoy what this technology has to offer in the future.
*Automated ride-hailing taxis are designed to carry passengers in a predefined area, in an urban or suburban environment, and travel at legal speed. In turn, shuttle buses or cars travel a predefined route with fixed start and end points and — in the case of the buses — at a far lower speed.