Robotisation of transport must not be only technology-driven, but aim at creating value added for society, says EESC

17 Jul 2017

The digitalisation and robotisation of transport generate countless benefits, but also raise social concerns which must be addressed by EU policy- makers - first and foremost, threats to citizens' privacy and job losses, says the EESC in a ground-breaking own-initiative opinion adopted at its July plenary.

Better accessibility, greater efficiency, improved traffic safety and reduced emissions are just some of the benefits of the digitalisation and robotisation of transport. As this incremental revolution unfolds, however, its potential threats are also becoming apparent. It is vital for EU policy-makers to address these concerns if society is to make the most of it. "While technology offers endless opportunities, progress must not be solely technology driven, but aim at creating added value for society. Political debate, together with the proper involvement of civil society, is therefore necessary", said opinion rapporteur Tellervo Kylä-Harakka-Ruonala (Employers' Group – FI).

Safety, security and privacy appear to be citizens' main concerns with regard to digital transport. In the future, transport will be entirely data-driven and it is essential to ensure data protection: "people are concerned about whether they are constantly being monitored", stressed Ms Kylä-Harakka-Ruonala, "we must ensure that data is used only for purposes relating to the operation of the system and is not kept for other ends".  Clarification of rules is also needed with regard to non-personal data, particularly data generated by sensors and smart devices, suggested the EESC. Increasing cybersecurity and tackling liability issues are also key to allay public fears.

The impact on the labour market and the nature of work is another major public concern. Unmanned transport and the increasing use of robotics in terminal operations will involve job losses. Studies point to transport workers as among the most vulnerable to losing their jobs to machines: according to a 2016 study by Deloitte, for instance, 74% of transport jobs in the UK had a high chance of being automated in the following two decades. But while robots steal jobs, they will also create new ones, particularly in communication technologies, digital services, electronics and robotics. Physical work and routine tasks will diminish, while problem-solving and creative tasks will play an ever greater role. It is therefore vital to address the skills gap and adapt education systems to respond to the demand for new skills.

The EESC singles out three other key policy areas where action is needed:

  • The transport system itself, where an advanced digital infrastructure needs to be developed to complete the basic transport infrastructure - roads, railways, ports and airports. Bottlenecks, such as shortages in the availability and accessibility of data, lack of fast internet connections and technical limitations to sensors and real-time positioning, must also be removed.

  • Business and innovation. An enabling business environment needs to be created so that European manufacturing and service industries, which are in the lead in many areas of digital transport, can seize opportunities and possibly gain a competitive edge in this field.

  • Climate and the environment. Digitalisation goes hand in hand with improved energy efficiency and an increased use of electric vehicles and non-fossil fuels, all of which contributes to reducing emissions. Much also depends on consumer behaviour. While people might be tempted to make more use of private cars as they become more convenient, car-sharing and use of public transport could also increase. Readily available journey-planning facilities need to be provided, together with pricing incentives to encourage consumers to make environmentally-friendly choices.

The EESC has been tackling the impact of digitalisation from different perspectives. The Committee has recently adopted opinions on the future of the automotive industry, the European strategy on Cooperative Intelligent Transport Systems and on Artificial Intelligence and its consequences on the single market, production, consumption, employment and society.

To read the EESC's opinion on The implications of the digitalisation and robotisation of transport on EU policy-making, please visit http://www.eesc.europa.eu/?i=portal.en.ten-opinions.41416