Eastern Europe Lags Behind in Automotive Transformation

The digital revolution in mobility has already changed the way politicians in Europe and other developed regions are thinking about the future and reducing carbon-based emissions.

For example, a number of governments have already vowed to ban the sale of new ICE vehicles in the near future. However, there are some regions of Europe that are lagging behind these efforts, such as Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), where the move toward eliminating gasoline-powered cars has run into stiff headwinds, some of it coming from political leaders. Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala’s position is probably typical of the views held by most other regional politicians. The EU’s proposed ban on new ICE vehicles by 2035 “would present an existential threat to many people for whom a car is not a luxury but a basic necessity which is essential to their everyday life; they need it for their work, to get to work, or simply to visit family and friends,” Fiala said in December 2021.

Traian Urban understands the problem. As director of Innovation at the Prague-based EIT Urban Mobility Hub East, he is part of the largest European initiative working to transform urban mobility on the Continent. “There are always political pushbacks when it comes to implementing a big societal change,” Urban said. However, he added: “We are seeing that the business sector is very aware of the need to innovate and implement alternative transport solutions.”

Urban said that car manufacturers are also pushing governments to give them more domestic support for the development of electromobility in the region. “But the lower purchasing power of the population in combination with a lower form of subsidy and support is the reason for the lower number of electric cars [in the region] and, thus, also the lag in the area of recharging infrastructure,” he noted.

As a result, according to figures from the European Environment Agency, the percentage of newly registered BEVs in the Czech Republic was about 1% of all new car registrations in 2020, compared to 7% for France and 23% for the Netherlands.

Founded in 2019, EIT Urban Mobility is an initiative of the European Institute of Innovation and Technology, a body of the European Union, with branches in Munich (Hub Central), Copenhagen (Hub North), Barcelona (Hub South), the Dutch city of Helmond (Hub West) and Prague (Hub East). Funding for the initiative comes from two sources. The EIT has committed to contribute up to €400M ($399.4M) to the initiative for the period 2020 to 2026. In addition, one of the organization’s primary activities is business creation. That is, the hubs invest in regional start-ups and earn revenues from the returns of these investments.

For example, Urban’s Hub East has invested in the Czech software start-up BringAuto. The company is based in the country’s second city, Brno, and this year began commercial operation of its electric teleoperated and autonomous robots for package delivery and cargo transport in industrial zones. Its last-mile delivery robot chooses the fastest route and, after informing the customers of the exact delivery time, delivers all the ordered parcels to the individual addresses.

Another barrier to reshaping urban mobility in the CEE, Urban said, is that some countries in the region, such as Poland and the Czech Republic, are above the European average in per capita car ownership. Also, many of these cars are old with an average age of passenger vehicles in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland and Hungary of more than 13 years.

“Cities in the CEE region also differ by slower construction of transport infrastructure, which makes it more difficult to implement alternative modes of transportation,” Urban said. “And these cities and urban areas have had a different development than cities in other regions in Europe.” This is owing to the centrally planned economies they endured under Communism and their different post-war industrial development as a result. Furthermore, shared mobility is not catching on in the CEE countries because “these [business] models are arriving with some delay here and have a longer adaptation period,” Urban explained.

He believes it is vital to increase the awareness of alternative and more sustainable modes of transport in the region and to improve the connectedness of public transport and pedestrian and cycling zones. “We first need to make the sustainable travel solutions available and then provide the right incentives for using them.”

One solution that is at the center of their efforts is to educate the next generation of urban mobility professionals, including policy practitioners. “For example, our Master School offers a wide-ranging master’s degree in urban mobility and aims to train 500 graduates per year in partnership with 10 universities,” Urban said. “We also have a Doctoral Training Network, and the aim is to train 50 graduates per year.”

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