On a typical Belgian drizzly Tuesday morning in April 2016, Ben Weyts, Flemish Minister of Mobility, stepped into the cabin of a Volvo truck. He was about to ride along for a test drive on the E19 Highway from Brussels to Antwerp. The many screens in the truck sparked his curiosity – it bore the faint resemblance of an airplane cockpit. Only weeks before, his administration issued a special decree to allow Volvo, IVECO and DAF to drive their trucks on Flanders’ roads in convoys of 2 or 3 vehicles no more than 72 feet apart, less than half of the legal minimum of 164 feet. The decree allowed truck manufacturers to compete in the first European Truck Platooning Challenge.
The Challenge was introduced by The Netherlands as part of their six-month Presidency of the Council of the EU. The Dutch had announced the Truck Platooning Challenge as a crucial step towards moving to a smart, digitized and low-emission mobility system in the EU. Six major truck manufacturers were challenged to drive truck platoons from and through a range of European countries to arrive at the port of Rotterdam on April 6, 2016 .
Truck platooning is spearheading the digitization of freight transport. It combines connected vehicle and self-driving technology to have trucks drive bumper-to-bumper in a convoy or column, reducing total wind resistance and fuel consumption significantly (see exhibit 1).
Air drag accounts for up to 25% of a truck’s total fuel consumption. The closer trucks can drive to each other, the greater the fuel saving potential .
The technology is emerging as an answer to many major challenges of long distance road freight transport and is key to efficiency improvement and cost reduction, decarbonization, logistics chain improvement, road safety and infrastructure capacity.
Transport represents almost a quarter of Europe’s greenhouse gas emissions and is the main cause of air pollution in cities. Moreover, the transport sector has not seen the same gradual decline in emissions as other sectors: emissions only started to decrease in 2007 and still remain higher than in 1990 (see exhibit 2). Transport is the only major sector in the EU where greenhouse gas emissions are still rising. Within this sector, road transport is by far the biggest emitter accounting for more than 70% of all greenhouse gas emissions from transport in 2014 (see exhibit 3) . Working to reduce the freight transport CO2 emissions through digitization makes particular sense in Belgium and Flanders, situated in the heart of Europe and crossed intensely by pan-European road transport. Without policy action, the CO2 emission from trucks and buses would rise with 10% over the 2010 – 2030 time period, putting additional pressure on Europe’s commitments in the Paris climate agreement .
According to minister Weyts: “We, as a road authority, have to change our focus. We have to deal with and establish a smarter road. We are not simply a construction operation anymore. We are a road authority 2.0. The road authority of the future.” 
Creating a regulatory framework for truck platooning is one of many steps the Flemish Ministry of Mobility is undertaking to help Europe fight its battle against climate change. The Platooning Challenge has highlighted the importance of international collaboration in establishing a regulatory framework for digital mobility and supply chain options and the EU is working to be able to deploy these systems coordinated and swiftly .
Going forward, minister Weyts should expand and accelerate his efforts to ensure Flemish law allows for permanent testing of truck platooning. Moreover, he should lead the effort to adapt and modernize European Traffic Law to the digitization of road transport. Case in point is the 1968 Vienna Convention on Road Traffic, stipulating much of the EU member states’ traffic law: it prescribes a minimum inter-truck driving distance of 164 feet, as opposed to the 72 feet or less aimed for in truck platooning .
As a result, truck manufacturers need to apply for and obtain a one-time ministerial decree for every test of platooning technology on public roads. Second, a pan-European regulatory framework needs to be set up and ratified to allow for platooning across national borders and truck brands, eliminating the need for a permit from each member state individually.
Key questions policymakers should take into account as they continue to digitize the road freight transport system include the degree of autonomy and a clear view on accident liability.
Will we as a society be ready to have fully autonomous trucks driving on our roads in the near future? How will we help our current drivers of the 13 million truck fleet find new employment?  How will we ensure the right party is held liable in case of an accident – truck manufacturer, transport company or third party involved?
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