Italy Steers a Course for Driverless Vehicles
Imagine a typical backdrop for autonomous driving. Do you picture the endless highways of Middle America? Perhaps you see a car weaving between the futuristic skyscrapers of Shanghai or speeding down one of Germany’s famous unrestricted Autobahns.
Italy could be a long way down the list - after all, this is the country where the Mille Miglia race sees vintage cars traversing the magical scenery of the Tuscan hills; drivers joyfully navigating hairpin bends on the Amalfi coast in an open-top Spider.
In the home of Ferrari and Lamborghini, every true Italian has a place in their heart and home for La Macchina: surely autonomous driving in Italy is an oxymoron?
Actually, it’s not the case. You might be surprised to learn that Italy was a pioneer of autonomous driving and that on 1 June 1998 a Lancia Thema drove that same Mille Miglia route in six days, making it one of the first tests of autonomous driving on urban roads worldwide.
Italian technologists have continued to contribute to the development of autonomous driving. Visionary research at the University of Parma led to the founding of VisLab, whose driverless minivan successfully completed a 16,000 km journey from Parma to Shanghai in 2010. VisLab was acquired in 2015 by the American company Ambarella for USD30 million.
Fast forward to 2019 and the architect Carlo Ratti, professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and director of their SENSEable City Lab, is converting Milan’s former Expo 2015 site into a park of science, knowledge, and innovation. It will also be the first neighborhood in the world planned entirely for autonomous vehicles.
An autonomous future
However, creativity and innovation alone do not a quantum leap make - the major contributors to success in this new world include rigorous legislative changes, infrastructural investment and development, and extensive testing of the technology itself.
On the legislative side, we don’t have to go far before reaching an obstacle in the road; the Italian Road Traffic Decree, “Codice della Strada” Art. 46 defines the notion of a vehicle as that which is “driven by a person.”
That said, some progress arrived last year with the issuance of the “Smart Road” legislative decree.1 The Minister for Transport and Infrastructure clearly defined the separate notions of “automated driving” (guida automatica), and “assisted driving” (guida assistita).
An autonomous driving vehicle is therein defined as one equipped with technology so that it can be driven without the active intervention of the driver, in certain road and external conditions.
It is not, conversely, a vehicle equipped for driving on public roads that has one or more assisted driving components, and that necessitates the constant active intervention of the driver in the activity of driving.
The decree also specifies the role and responsibility of the “supervisor” onboard a vehicle with autonomous capabilities. It states s/he must always be able to take control of the vehicle if necessary. When the supervisor resumes active manual driving, s/he returns to the role of driver. The decree has also provided for the possibility of experimenting with autonomous driving on public roads with a test license plate and MOT authorisation.
Insurance will also be compulsory. In fact, the policy must have a minimum limit of four times the current obligatory indemnity amounts, which translates to a policy limit of around EUR29 million. This kind of policy limit could be indicative of predicted future trends. While on one hand minor claims, which today make up the majority in numeric terms, will decrease thanks to the inherent security of autonomous driving, the cost of single claims will increase exponentially due to the costliness and sophistication of components.
Progress is also being made on the testing side. On 28 October 2018, the first autonomous vehicle drove in Turin without human driver intervention using a 5G technology hub. Turin, the historic home of Fiat, was chosen as a center for experimentation, and 14 partners (including a leading Italian insurer), signed a memorandum of understanding to promote an urban laboratory of new mobility and attract industry know how.
A special 35 km route has been created where manufacturers and research centers can test systems and vehicles in various circumstances. The Modena Automotive Smart Area is another testing ground and the University of Modena has created the first master’s program in autonomous driving.
In terms of infrastructure, the Italian highway agency ANAS is to implement a Smart Motorway Program on more than 2,500 km of roads and motorways with systems featuring multiple roadside sensors that can send direct customised messages to each vehicle’s onboard navigation system.
Testing of Cooperative Intelligent Transport Systems that employ “vehicle to everything” technology will soon begin on the A22 Brennero motorway, that connects Italy and Austria.
One experiment will involve “truck platooning”, whereby four Iveco TIR trucks will form a convoy driven by smart technology. Once connected, drivers can take their hands off the wheel, and regain control when they disconnect.
This technology, which improves safety, reduces costs, and boosts traffic flows, will be a game-changer in a country that has long suffered from serious commercial transport congestion issues.
A related proposal was made at the end of last year, for the obligatory installation of automatic braking systems on trucks carrying hazardous materials. The move was in response to a major accident on the Bologna motorway, where a tanker truck carrying flammable material ploughed into a lorry and caused a deadly explosion.
So, what does the average Italian make of it all? Perhaps surprisingly, Italians are the least sceptical of their European counterparts: the 2019 Deloitte Global Automotive Consumer Study showed only 29% of Italians thought self-driving vehicles to be unsafe, as opposed to 47% of Germans and 56% of Dutch.2 A 2018 Censis study gave a slightly more negative reaction with 36% citing safety concerns, however this was in the period directly after the fatal Uber incident in Arizona.3 The Findomestic Observatory report on consumer trends (Nov 2017) indicated that 60% of Italians think they will soon see automated vehicles on the roads, and half would have no problem using driverless cars.4
Many still identify with the pleasure of driving and over 50% of Italians say they would like to continue driving. But on the whole, the population seems reconciled to change, perhaps because the necessity is becoming self-evident.
The 175,000 road accidents resulting in injuries in Italy in 2017 cost a total of EUR19.3 billion, corresponding to 1.1% of its Gross National Product. Meanwhile, congestion and emission problems are constantly in the news, with Milan recently introducing an extended limited traffic zone, and major municipalities regularly enforcing “no-car” Sundays.
Creaking legislation is probably the major obstacle. However, the success of the sharing economy has proved that necessity is the mother of invention and proposed modifications to the road traffic regulations are currently being examined.
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