Large-scale tests with self-driving cars to hit Dutch roads

The Netherlands wants to be a front-runner of self-driving cars in Europe

Self-driving cars could appear on Dutch public roads soon, as the government is preparing regulations that will make large-scale public road tests legal, the country's Ministry of Infrastructure and Environment said Monday.

Self-driving cars could help reduce traffic jams, make roads safer and help the environment, minister Melanie Schultz van Haegen wrote in a letter to the Dutch House of Representatives.

Currently, Dutch drivers have limited abilities to hand control over their steering wheel to a car's computer. Automatic parking for instance is permitted, but to make more extensive manoeuvres possible regulations needs to change, Schultz said. She plans to propose changes to the current regulations by early 2015. Until then, only small scale tests are possible.

Real-life tests with self-driving vehicles are essential to make the necessary rules, Schultz said, adding that the tests also help other drivers to get used to the phenomenon. To keep up with the pace of technological innovation, Schultz plans to keep the new rules flexible and quite general.

Schultz is planning to put self-driving cars on the European agenda when the Netherlands holds the EU presidency in 2016, she said.

One large-scale test request is already on the table. A consortium of the Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research (TNO), together with truck producer DAF, the Port of Rotterdam Authority and others wants to run tests with several autonomous trucks driving in a train, Schultz said.

The planned tests will increase in complexity, beginning first on private land and later moving to public roads if the technology proves safe enough. The consortium wants to develop a driving system for autonomous trucks within the next five years and plans to sell it to logistics companies for use on public roads.

A request to test self-driving cars on public roads is also being prepared, said Riender Happee, project leader of the Dutch Automated Vehicle Initiative (DAVI) and assistant professor at the Delft University of Technology.

Last year, DAVI tested self-driving cars on public roads with an engineer behind the wheel. Next, the initiative wants to perform a similar test with regular drivers, Happee said. Public road tests with regular drivers could happen within the next two years after having proved the safety of the experiment in a controlled environment, he said.

DAVI cars can drive automatically but are also able to communicate with other vehicles and infrastructure in order to make self-driving cars safer on existing roads in normal traffic.

It will probably take until 2020 before people can buy a self-driving car and take it for a spin, Happee said. "The technique is ready but we need to prove it is safe," he said, adding that automobile manufacturers, governments and insurance companies must recognize the importance in order for self-driving cars to become reality.

The Netherlands is not the only European country experimenting with self-driving cars. Similar tests are being conducted in Germany. And last year, Volvo started a pilot project that aims to have 100 self-driving cars on Swedish public roads around the city of Gothenburg by 2017.

Loek is Amsterdam Correspondent and covers online privacy, intellectual property, open-source and online payment issues for the IDG News Service. Follow him on Twitter at @loekessers or email tips and comments to loek_essers@idg.com

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