Last week, the Dutch government announced a series of drastic rule changes designed to curb nitrogen emissions from some sectors in order to allow growth in others. This is a response to what the Dutch are calling a “Nitrogen crisis”, which, though it isn’t causing urgent action in other places, has been creating chaos in our tiny corner of semi-submerged Northern European land. While the new measures focus on several aspects of nitrogen emissions, including new enzyme-rich feed to reduce cattle “exhaust”, the one that will be felt by the broadest swath of the population is the reduction of the speed limits across the country to 100 kph from the current (and only fairly recently raised) 120 and 130 kph.
This decision is a relatively palatable win in a country that has a complicated relationship with cars, but has never focused on the speed and petrolhead culture like its German or British neighbors. The country’s pragmatic roots and occasional anti-automotive sentiment are the reasons for the exceptional state of mobility and cycling infrastructure today, and its punitive automotive taxation has undoubtably led to a healthier relationship with cars than in almost any other European country, with cars generally seen as a necessity rather than a luxury good, removing much of the shine that brands work so hard to polish. While this can sting for those passionate about cars, it also leads to opportunity. In the 1970s, Amsterdam was home to the first electric car-sharing platform, an entire generation before anyone else tried it, and the automobile-restricted town centers and limited parking predate many of Europe’s now-common pedestrianized historic areas and congestion zones. But there is one area where restricted speed limits and near-perfect infrastructure could be a huge boon: autonomous driving.
While places like metropolitan Phoenix, with its wide boulevards, retirement communities and lax lawmaking have created a playground for AV testing, I think that The Netherlands now presents a huge opportunity to move AVs on to the next level, both figuratively and literally. Dutch motorways are notoriously smooth and well marked. The traffic engineers are some of the best in the world, working to constantly improve the safety and efficiency of some of the world’s already safest roads. Most of all, the country’s small size means that the infrastructure rarely breaks down in rural areas, with almost complete homogeneity of road quality, layout and signage. A perfect geofenced testing area for AVs then.
Well, maybe not exactly. While the Dutch automotive infrastructure is incredible, the town centers can be a stressful driving experience for all but the most seasoned user. That legendary cycling infrastructure can create a level of confusion unmatched in other western countries. Bikes of all shapes, sizes and speeds mix almost seamlessly with pedestrians, trams and small electric vehicles in busy cities, with layers of sidewalks, bike paths and brick-paved roads overlapping in intricate and often (seemingly) chaotic ways. Outside the cramped towns, roads through the countryside are often only wide enough for a single car to pass, with overtake points requiring patience and experience to navigate. Add to these issues the ever-present roadside canals, and it all might seem like a worst-case scenario, rather than a great test area. But there is one overarching thing that makes it all palatable. Speed. Or, more precisely, the lack thereof.
Low speed limits and strict adherence to them are the hallmarks of Dutch road safety. In towns, as in much of Europe, the speeds are restricted to just 50 kph (31 mph). In residential neighborhoods and old towns, the standard limit is just 30 kph (19 mph). Once outside town limits and into rural areas, something that happens very abruptly due to strict planning rules, 60-80 kph (37-50 mph) is the norm. But more importantly, these limits are not only extremely strictly enforced, but also designed for. Traffic calming measures, such as speed bumps and engineered alternating one-way “pinch points” are used throughout both urban and rural roads. Speed cameras, placed frequently and prominently on all types of roads, deliver speeding infractions without prejudice. Recently, seeing a spike in crashes on smaller dual-carriageway “National” roads between towns, even trajectcontroles, or “fixed average speed checks”, have been added to enforce the 80 kph limits. All of this means that with cars on Dutch roads, speeds are both highly restricted *and respected*. Combined with consistent road markings, signage and attitudes, this makes for a perfect Level 4 AV testing area.
Ironically, Dutch cities probably won’t be the place that happens, it will be between the cities that makes the most sense. This opens up possibilities such as short- and medium-haul transport of both goods and people, perhaps complimenting the overloaded, underdeveloped and frequently-disrupted Dutch railway system, but also giving commuters between smaller towns back some time via reduced traffic and regained in-car productivity. In the crowded cities, overwhelmed train-station bike parking could be given relief via AV cycling stations on the edges of town rather than right in the center. The ability of AVs to serve business parks, industrial areas and modern residential developments directly, avoiding the current hub-and-spoke system, could also potentially boost smaller neighborhood businesses, such as bike shops, restaurants and markets, while also reducing the overall traffic load.
Finally, the last element that AVs might be able to bring to the table in a reduced-speed Dutch road network is safety and better traffic flow. Ironically, while low speed limits do often correlate to low fatalities, it’s an often-cited consideration in traffic engineering that people will try to drive the speed they feel appropriate given the road conditions, and speeds set to those expectations can smooth traffic flow and reduce crashes (see “Credible speed limits” here). This was one of the reasons that many Dutch roads increased their speed limits in 2011 to 130 kph after decades at 100 or 120 kph, although has recently been disputed. Autonomous cars will obviously treat those speed limits without judgement, and the passengers, left to their distractions, might be much more patient as a result. Dedicated AV lanes could also be implemented in many places, allowing autonomous systems training in a more easily controlled environment. It will require a strong public/private partnership and strict regulation, however, not a wild-west style free-for-all.
That just so happens to be one of The Netherlands’ strongest traits. While the Dutch government is known for its slow, consensus-building “polder model” of decision-making, they are also exceptional at making tough choices quickly and decisively when challenges and opportunities arise. There are already laws on the books to smooth much of the bureaucracy involved in getting AV testing moving, and we’ve seen them make the tough choice on speed limits already. Now it’s time to see whether they step up to the opportunity they’ve created and make The Netherlands the hub of future transportation research that it can be.