Tomorrow's Economy

Political inaction risks jeopardising Spain’s head start on autonomous cars

30 November 2016

Spain’s political deadlock may finally be over, but more regulatory steps need to be taken to cement the country’s position as a leader on autonomous driving technology

Eugenia Guerrero

Spain’s automotive sector has flourished over the past half century. It is now the second largest car manufacturer in Europe, behind Germany, which puts it in the eighth position in the global league table. Vehicle production is absolutely vital to the Spanish economy, accounting for 8.7 per cent of national GDP in 2015 according to ANFAC, Spain’s association of car manufacturers.

Though the automotive sector remains strong, Spain has recently faced a lack of political certainty – the result of inconclusive general elections in December 2015 and June 2016 and the Socialist party’s decision to eject its leader, Pedro Sanchez. Prime Minister Manuel Rajoy had continued in a caretaker capacity while parliament remained in deadlock with no party able to assemble a majority.

In order to understand Spain’s traffic policy regime, it is crucial to take into account the nation’s complicated governance structure. The competencies devolved to each of the devolved communities vary greatly. Executive and legislative power is granted in varying degrees, so-called ‘asymmetrical devolution’. However, when it comes to the regulations concerning autonomous cars, the legislation pertaining to tests of self-driving cars has been drafted and passed centrally by the Spanish Directorate General of Traffic, which is part of the Ministry of the Interior, rather than being independently passed by the autonomous regions individually.

As autonomous vehicle technology is still quite new, it is not a topic that is explicitly touched upon in any of the political parties’ manifestos. Notwithstanding this, certain policies, especially policies affecting the transport sector and innovation policies will indirectly impact upon the objectives of the Spanish Directorate General of Traffic, and consequently affect the short- and long-term development and deployment of autonomous vehicles in Spain.

Spain currently has established a set of leading automated-driving clusters, mostly dependent on regional as opposed to national support, which have helped boost the technology’s prospects locally. But if the seemingly resolved political uncertainty engenders a prolonged delay in the development of legislation pertaining to the automobile sector, the rate of foreign and national investment in the automobile sector in general and in the self-driving sector in particular could decline.

Though the leadership change in the Socialist party broke the impasse, it remains undoubtedly true that a year of political uncertainty has slowed momentum towards future legislation concerning the commercialised spread of autonomous vehicles, as it has in many other policy areas.

Consequently, the formation of a stable government that is able to pursue at least a medium-term agenda will determine how quickly a detailed policy towards self-driving cars emerges. A concrete plan regulating the commercialised spread of autonomous cars in light of the recently solved political deadlock could positively impact Spain’s position as one of the European countries leading in self-driving technology.

Photo credit: Natalia Svistunova / Shutterstock.com