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How France is preparing for a future of driverless vehicles

While there won't be any batmobiles cruising the streets of Paris or Lyon any time soon, France has taken an important step in revising the legal framework for introducing autonomous cars onto the roads.

How France is preparing for a future of driverless vehicles
A technician sits inside the experimental driverless autonomous shuttle near Indre, Central France on July 29, 2022. (Photo by GUILLAUME SOUVANT / AFP)

On Thursday, September 1st, a new set of laws goes into place governing the introduction of “Level 3” autonomous cars French roads. 

However, France is still a long way from allowing unmanned vehicles on the roads, and it is important to note that so far only one such semi-autonomous vehicle has been approved for use – the Mercedes S-Class. Several other manufacturers have also announced their plans to launch their own versions.

In France, cars are ranked on a scale of one through five based on their autonomy.

  • Level 0 means that the driver controls everything (ie a standard vehicle)
  • Level 1 allows for driving aids such as cruise control 
  • Level 2 allows for some automated tasks such as ParkAssist

Levels 0-2 are already legal on French roads.

Level 3 – which is legal from September 1st – encompasses ‘semi-autonomous vehicles’ which can operate either with a driver or automatically.

They can only be used in specific situations: on roads without pedestrians or cyclists, on roads with a lane divider (a median), and with speed limited to 60 km/h.

READ MORE: Fake laws: The real rules for driving in France you need to know

The update to the French legal framework will be important for future driverless cars, though. In case of an accident, if the autonomous driving system of the car is activated, the “driver” will not be able to be held responsible (as long as the conditions of use for the software were respected). Instead, it will be the manufacturer or the designer of the software who is held responsible.

For these Level 3 vehicles, motorists will be able to do some ‘hands-free’ driving in the above-outlined scenarios, and as a result of the updated law, it will be the manufacturer who is held responsible in case of an accident if ‘hands-free’ is activated. 

This will be also be important for level 4 (fully autonomous, though with a steering wheel) and 5 (autonomous without a steering wheel or pedals) – neither of these are yet legal on French roads. 

Fully driverless cars may still be in the distant future, but France has already been experimenting with some other automated types of transport. 

Buses and shuttles

The Paris Metro already has driverless trains on lines 1 and 14, and a project is underway to automatise line 4.

The RATP public transport operator also began experiments with autonomous buses in September 2021, with the goal of expanding these in the years to come.

While there will still be a person sitting at the wheel, they will not be the one operating the vehicle. The steering wheel, pedals, and breaks are all operated automatically. 

RATP tested the technology on line 393 in Sucy-Bonneuil, located near Paris. 

RATP’s director of innovations, Côme Berbain, told Le Figaro in September 2021 that “Regular commercial operation would begin at the earliest by 2025, and the launch still depends on many parameters.”

The city has also been working with the company Alstom since 2017 to develop an autonomous tramway. Experiments have taken place on the Vitry RATP maintenance and storage site.

More recently, several cities in France have tested autonomous shuttles – or navettes. 

Transport minister Clément Beaune, on a visit to a test site in Indre, called the project “pioneering” adding: “Let’s see in a few months what this experiment gives, to draw conclusions. But if it works, I will do everything I can to ensure that the State backs it.”

Olympic transport

Paris is also seeking out smart transportation ahead of the 2024 Olympic Games. The organisation ‘Urbanloop’ was one of 21 winning projects to offer transportation ideas for the 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games. 

The ‘autonomous capsules’ have already been tested out in Nancy, as shown below. 

The project is described as the “deployment of fleets of autonomous capsules on rails that can carry one or two people, including people with reduced mobility or a person with a bicycle.”

These low-emissions capsules can travel at speeds of up to 60 km/h and are 100 percent electric, without batteries.

They are being hailed as a Metro alternative for small to medium sized cities. Prior to being officially put into use in Nancy in 2026, they will be tested during the 2024 Games.

The pilot project will link the entrance to the Montigny-le-Bretonneux Olympic site to a fan zone. The capsules will run on a two kilometre loop, which will serve two stations with 10 vehicles, allowing for a maximum flow of about 220 people per hour.

After the Olympics, public transportation in France is slated to become significantly more automatised, with some projections pointing to 13 percent of buses being autonomous by 2035. 

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How Brexit and Covid have derailed Eurostar services between France and UK

The French boss of Eurostar has laid out how the combination of the pandemic, Brexit and ongoing uncertainty over new EU travel rules have left the company in a very precarious position.

How Brexit and Covid have derailed Eurostar services between France and UK

The Eurostar CEO Jacques Damas has laid out the company’s woes in a long letter to British MPs, stating that as things stand “Eurostar cannot currently pursue a strategy of volume and growth. We are having to focus on our core routes . . . and to charge higher prices to customers”.

He said that two things have significantly damaged the company – the pandemic (worsened by the fact that the company received no state aid from the UK government) and Brexit which has made travel between France and the UK considerably more complicated with more checks required at stations.

Damas said that peak capacity at both London St Pancras and Paris Gare du Nord is 30 percent less than it was pre-Brexit, because of the increased infrastructure needed to check and stamp the passports of travellers.

He said: “Even with all booths manned, St Pancras can only process a maximum of 1,500 passengers per hour, against 2,200 in 2019.

“It is only the fact that Eurostar has capacity-limited trains and significantly reduced its timetable from 2019 levels, that we are not seeing daily queues in the centre of London similar to those experienced in the Channel ports.

“This situation has obvious commercial consequences and is not sustainable in the mid to long-term.”

He added that the increased passport checks and stamping needed since Brexit adds at least 15 seconds to each passenger’s processing time, and that automated passport gates are less efficient.

The other factor that has hit the company hard was the pandemic and subsequent travel restrictions, leading to revenues being cut by 95 percent for 15 months.

The London-based company struggled to access government financial aid due to its ownership structure, with both the British and French governments reluctant to assume sole responsibility for bailing out the company.

It began as a joint venture between the British and French governments, but then the British sold off its share to private investors.

Damas said: “Contrary to the £7 billion in state aid given to our airline competitors, Eurostar did not receive any state-backed loans”. 

By May 2021 the company was teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, and was eventually bailed out to the tune of €290 million in loans and shareholder-guaranteed loans and equity – although this saved the company it has now left it with huge debts to be repaid.

The CEO’s letter was responding to questions from British MPs on the Transport Select Committee who wanted to know when trains would again stop at Ashford station – which has been closed since March 2020. Damas said there was no immediate prospect of that, or of reinstating the route to Disneyland Paris, while the company grapples with these financial problems.

He added that there is also “considerable uncertainty” around the new EU travel systems known as the EES and ETIAS, which are due to come into effect in 2023 and which will require extra checking of passports at the EU’s external borders – such as the UK/France border. 

READ ALSO Fears of ‘massive travel disruption’ in 2023

Many Eurostar passengers have commented recently on increased ticket prices, and it seems that there is little immediate prospect of prices going back down to 2019 levels.