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Interview:
‘TRA Q&A’ with Research Commissioner Janez Potočnik

The motor vehicle and parts sector invests more in research than any other sector of European industry. This fact has helped to keep the European road transport sector one of the most competitive in the world. TRA 2008 will provide a forum to promote all European road research efforts, says EU Science & Research Commissioner Janez Potočnik, making it a golden opportunity to create a true ‘European Road Transport Research Arena’. Here he takes time to answer some of our questions.

Q: Commissioner Potočnik, what do participants stand to gain by coming to Ljubljana for this event?

Janez PotočnikA: In a Europe of many cultures, traditions and languages, one of the challenges lies in getting researchers, business people and policy makers to speak with one voice. Too many resources have already been wasted due to a lack of communication, coordination and priority-setting among the right people at the right time. And as sustainable mobility rises up the political agenda, it becomes so much more important that the major players have an opportunity to meet, so they can discuss the direction to take in the future. TRA 2008 will provide such a meeting place.

Efficient mobility is a key issue for policy makers. Enabling the free movement of people and goods is crucial to economic prosperity and quality of life. However, road congestion in the EU is on the increase, and the problem is aggravated by the fact that European roads are being used more and more to the exclusion of other transport modes. The TRA 2008 conference represents a major opportunity for EU policy makers to move towards a better transport system, and strong Commission support for this meeting reflects the importance of road transport within the larger European policy agenda.

To come at it from another angle, European industry should take full advantage of the freedom and flexibility offered by a state-of-the-art road transport system, ensuring that European companies function efficiently and that they are profitable. But industrial competitiveness in road transport also means exporting European transport-related products and services to foreign and global markets. The automotive sector is a key player in the European economy; EU carmakers deliver multi-billion euro turnover for Europe’s economy and millions of jobs for Europeans. The industry also spends €19 billion per year on research and technological development, making it the largest private investor in R&D in Europe.

TRA 2008 will cover all aspects of road transport research, focussing on the ‘Strategic Research Agenda’ defined by the European Road Transport Research Council, known as ERTRAC. This is all about the sector getting together to identify its research needs. It means that there is a strategic plan for the sector, leading to better, more efficient use of resources and ensuring that research delivers what is needed to develop the sector. Among other things, this means combining and coordinating European, national, regional and private research actions, and improving the networking, clustering and pooling of research and development capacities.

Q: How can today's road research and European Transport Policy respond to climate change concerns?

Janez PotočnikA: The European transport sector is growing rapidly, with far-reaching implications for citizens and the environment. Transport activities are a major contributor to environmental pollution and have an important impact on climate change, accounting for more than 25% of all CO2 emissions.

What we need are innovative solutions that will help save the environment while bringing economic benefits. Our activities under the Seventh Research Framework Programme, will cover issues such as reducing greenhouse gases through both technological and socio-economic means; developing clean and efficient engines and power-trains; developing alternative fuels for transport, in particular hydrogen and fuel cells; and reducing noise disturbance.

By coming up with new and better solutions in these and other areas, we believe road research can make a real difference in meeting the challenges of climate change.

Q: What would  citizens expect from  European road research?

A: Road transport plays a central role in developing social, regional and economic cohesion in Europe. And it has a huge effect on the environment and therefore on the quality of life of every European citizen. Europe needs a cleaner, safer and more intelligent transport system, and a highly efficient and coordinated approach to road research is essential to deliver that. Research can make a real difference here, and it makes good sense for public – as well as private - money to be invested in it.

Q: What makes Slovenia the right country to be hosting TRA in 2008?

Janez PotončnikA: For me, TRA 2008 is especially significant, as it will take place in my home country of Slovenia under the Slovenian presidency of the European Union, the first time one of the countries that joined the EU in 2004 will hold that function.

Slovenia has in recent years been doing its very best to direct investment into transport infrastructure in a way that will not only serve today's needs but also those of future generations.

One indication of Slovenia’s commitment to improving road transport is its newly launched Strategic Development Plan 2007-2013, which includes a Technology Platform for Vehicles, Roads and Transport. This important new initiative aligns Slovenia's work in road transport research with ERTRAC's Strategic Research Agenda.

The local organisers, the Slovenian National Building and Civil Engineering Institute, DDC Consulting and Engineering and the Road and Transportation Research Association of Slovenia, with the support of the Ministry of Transport, are doing a great job to make TRA 2008 a successful forum.

Q: How well are the New Members States integrated in the European Research Area (ERA)?

Janez PotočnikA: Membership of the European Research Area has to start long before formal accession, in particular as research capacities take time to build up – investment has to be made, partnerships have to be formed. This is why we involve candidate countries in the research programme many years in advance of their accession, and this was the case with the Member States, like Slovenia, that joined recently. The goal is to turn knowledge into real benefits for citizens while increasing Europe’s competitiveness and commercial success. For the Union’s newest members, and the candidate and accession countries, this can still mean overcoming some serious challenges.

A new transport research initiative called TransSLO, led by Slovenia, is just one concrete example of the work being done towards this end. TransSLO will assess transport research capabilities in the new member states and help them to get involved in European projects. The objective is to integrate their research communities, policy makers and industry into the broader European picture more quickly. This will then lead to closer ties, common information channels and more contacts between professional, academic, research and industrial communities.

TRA 2008 will take place in Ljubljana, Slovenia, from 21 to 24 April 2008.

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