Policy rethink for driverless cars

Beverley Head

Federal and State reforms to allow autonomous vehicles could double the number of vehicles handled by Australia’s roads and slash accident rates.

“Whether ready or not, the technology is already here,” says the CEO of toll road operator Transurban Scott Charlton. “That’s where regulators, governments and road operators like us need to be ready. This will fundamentally change the way we move around cities.”

Speaking at the second National Infrastructure Summit in Sydney, Mr Charlton said even without the reforms, people were already using the hands-free driving features of Teslas on the roads, despite it still being illegal in Australia.

He referenced the paper released last month by the National Transport Commission which identified 716 separate provisions in State, Territory and Federal legislation that could act as barriers to the wholesale introduction of driverless cars

Responses to the NTC paper are being sought until July 4.

But Mr Charlton noted that was not the only reform that would be prompted by new generation vehicles.

The advent of electric vehicles would, for example, reduce the petrol excise available to governments to fund road upgrades; vehicle sharing schemes proliferating thanks to autonomous vehicles could reduce income streams from motor vehicle licensing; while there would be implications also for public transport, some of which could be challenged by the rise of the autonomous vehicle he said.

While these are hurdles, Mr Charlton said that the advantages of moving to autonomous vehicles were becoming clear and he suggested that a million lives a year could be saved through a 90 per cent drop in accident rates. “That is not unrealistic given human error causes 94 per cent of all crashes today,” he said.

EU autonomous truck trials he said had also demonstrated 10 per cent fuel savings thanks to slipstreaming and more efficient driving.

Autonomous vehicles would also allow current road infrastructure to handle far more traffic, efficiently, than it does currently. Mr Charlton said proof of concept testing suggested that autonomous vehicle only lanes could handle 4,000 cars an hour – double the current theoretical per-lane maximum.

He said that besides the impact on infrastructure companies, car makers were also bracing for change. Mr Charlton said that there was already a decline in car ownership as millenials turned increasingly to public transport or services such as Uber and Lyft to get around.

“The term we will hear is mobility as a service – a shift to providing consumers with individual transport options through smartphone apps,” combining multiple modes of transport including bicycles, trains and car share.

“There will be a generational shift in car ownership leading to car pooling and car sharing … older people and people with disabilities will have new transport options as well.”

The other technology impacting transportation was big data and internet of things deployments he said. Transurban now uses data from in road sensors, ramp meters, CCTV cameras and travel time information to optimise traffic flow, which Mr Charlton claimed had seen traffic speeds on Melbourne’s CityLink increase by 40 per cent despite the road handling 20 per cent more cars than when it opened 17 years ago.

The company has also run a proof of concept of predictive analytics, and found that combining data from traffic systems and weather services it has been able to predict the likelihood of an accident 30 minutes ahead with 90 per cent accuracy.

While Mr Charlton said there was the potential to deploy more sensors in the road network, infrastructure organisations were still struggling to use it all.
“We have so much data but we don’t use the data yet,” he said.

That is certainly the case in Sydney where the Transport Management Centre is still reliant on a traffic management system introduced for the Sydney Olympics late last millennium.

Speaking at a Pegasystems user conference in the US this month Jason Cross-Martin, until recently program manager at the Transport Management Centre at NSW Transport, said that the government was investing $70 million and working with Data61 over the next two to three years to develop a new Intelligent Congestion Management system based on a yet to be developed algorithm that could actually utilise all the data that was currently being collected.

“Right now there is a shift toward proactive congestion management, rather than a reactive approach,” he said.

Mr Cross-Martin who has now taken up a role at IP Australia, said that although much richer information was now available it had not transitioned out of the IT group to operations.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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