Panel discussion on the future and challenges of autonomous transport

Autonomous transport is really just a disguised way to cut costs. Based on these kinds of sharp statements, five panel members with expertise in different modes of transport discussed the future of autonomous transport during the New Energy Forum. What are the biggest challenges? And is the whole concept viable at all?

Autonomous transport: (not) a bright future?

The Northern Netherlands is a European frontrunner in testing with autonomous transport: tests are being carried out on the road, rail, air and water. The idea behind it is that development can be accelerated by gaining as much experience as possible. Autonomous vehicles offer many advantages – at least on paper – but the challenges are also countless.

Under the leadership of Frans Hamstra of regional partnership for autonomous transport @North, Jorrit Kuipers (robotTUNER), Egbert Swierts (Foundation DroneHub GAE), Henk Zwetsloot (Groningen Seaports), Yvonne Dubben (Arriva) and Patrick Potgraven (Rijkswaterstaat) debated on 24 June with each other. An impression based on some discussed statements.

‘Disguised way of cutting costs’

Hamstra kicks off with a razor-sharp statement: autonomous transport is a disguised way of cutting costs because it takes away jobs. Zwetsloot counters that it is often difficult to find crew in shipping, so autonomous transport is a plus. Arriva, Dubben emphasizes, has very different goals than cutting costs: “Punctuality, sustainability, greater capacity because more trains can be used on the track and accessing rural areas where there is currently no public transport.” Finally, Kuipers and Swierts emphasize that autonomous transport can also primarily serve social goals, such as making city centers car-free and the transport of medicines and organs by drones.

‘Nobody is no waiting for it’

The noise from drones and the accidents with self-driving cars, for example, make it clear that travellers and local residents are not at all interested in autonomous vehicles. The panel members agree: you have to include all those involved and communication is key. If this is done correctly, people will have no problem with it at all – for example, experiments with trains without drivers and the self-driving shuttle that runs between the new hospital in Scheemda and the nearest bus stop. Potgraven expects that freight transport can take steps faster because any accidents involving goods have less impact: “A human life is priceless, a container of shoes simply has a price tag.

‘There is no business model for autonomous transport’

By referring to labour-intensive shuttles, pods and drones, Hamstra makes the statement that there is no business model for autonomous transport. A tour of the panel members shows that a sound business model can be devised for all modalities. Especially when looking beyond just the financial aspect and social interests are also taken into account, think of the medicines and organs transported by drones. Potgraven: “In any case, you have a business case for all the work that is dangerous, dirty and dull, since you would rather not let anyone do that.

‘Northern Netherlands must wait to innovate’

Statement: the north is now busy with autonomous transport, but must wait to innovate until the rest of the Netherlands catches up and innovate from that point on, because it will not work if we do it alone. Dubben aptly summarizes the prevailing opinion among the panel members: “Certainly not, we have all the ingredients here to take steps: plenty of space, smart people and all modalities, including soon even the hyperloop. We must continue and thus pave the way for the rest of the Netherlands.

Watch the complete panel discussion about autonomous transport during the New Energy Forum (in Dutch) below.

About the New Energy Forum

On Thursday 24 June 2021, a new annual festival about energy transition and sustainable mobility took place: the New Energy Forum. During this hybrid festival, day chairman Diederik Jekel took visitors and viewers into the smart, new world of energy and mobility. The festival is an initiative of Hive.Mobility, EnTranCe Center of Expertise Energy of the Hanze University of Applied Sciences Groningen and New Energy Coalition and is set up to show visitors the latest developments, share knowledge and offer inspiration. All program components of this year can be viewed via

This project has been made possible thanks to a contribution from the EU project ART-Forum (Interreg).