The European auto industry has a fear when it comes to the advent of autonomous driving.
It's that Europe is falling behind in the new technology race, losing the competitive advantage to companies in the U.S. and China, where advanced research is occurring faster and more freely.
Johann Jungwirth, for one, is visibly frustrated.
Volkswagen Group's chief digital officer knows that automotive companies are locked in a battle with tech companies for leadership in autonomous driving.
Jungwirth, a former Apple engineer, fears European regulations are hampering efforts to bring VW's battery-powered Sedric concept to market. VW management has decided to move Sedric, short for "self-driving car," into production. But instead of in VW's home market of Germany, it will launch first in the U.S.
"My goal is to be in the first U.S. cities with driverless cars in 2021," Jungwirth said as he presented the latest iteration of the car in Hanover, Germany. After that will come a rollout in China, Singapore and in Middle Eastern cities such as Dubai. "And then comes Europe. We would love to come earlier since it's our home market, but the legislation just isn't there."
European leaders and consumers are well aware of the potential of autonomous driving. Every year, half a million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions in Germany alone could be saved by eliminating the search for parking spaces, which studies show account for up to 30 percent of inner-city traffic. Every year 1.25 million people die around the world, and as many as 50 million are injured in road traffic accidents, according to United Nations statistics. Every year children, the elderly or the physically challenged have little or no access to individual mobility.
VW's Sedric and others like it could change that. Vehicles legally permitted to operate without any driver behind the wheel would revolutionize transportation.
But there are challenges.