Victoria targets driverless cars

James Riley
Editorial Director

Legislation paving the way for trials of driverless cars on public roads in Victoria has been passed as competition grows between states to become the hub for the emerging technology in Australia.

Amendments to the Road Safety Act were unanimously supported by both major parties and the crossbench and easily passed through the upper house of Parliament last week.

The legislation establishes the regulatory framework for automated vehicle trials on Victorian roads, clarifying the legal responsibility with these tests and sanctions for not complying with the rules.

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The state’s Minister for Roads Luke Donnellan said the legislation was “historic”.

“Victoria is at the forefront of autonomous vehicle technology and these changes will allow our best and brightest to continue to drive transport innovation,” Mr Donnellan said.

“Automated vehicles are the future of road safety – that’s why we’re investing in trials and giving researchers better access to Victorian roads,” he said.

The framework was based on the permit scheme for human learner drivers, with VicRoads now able to grant permits to individuals or organisations to run a trial of driverless car technology.

The minister will now issue guidelines and policies with the criteria for these licences.

To obtain a license, an applicant must provide details of the pilot project and develop a safety management plan for it.

The legislation also states that the legal burden for any accidents – or complications with the trial – would fall on the legal entity responsible for the trial.

The applicant must demonstrate that appropriate safety management mechanisms were in place, and a human supervisor would have to be on hand, either inside or outside of the vehicle, just as there is with a human learner driver.

But once it had been proven that the automated vehicle could drive safely, authorities have the ability to remove this condition.

The amendments also give Victoria Police powers to impound a driverless vehicle if it is being used without a permit – or in breach of a permit – and includes sanctions for this misuse.

The legislation also ensures Victoria can now comply with the guidelines on autonomous vehicles testing on public roads produced by the National Transport Commission last year.

The amendments were supported by the state opposition and the Greens, and were passed by Parliament last week.

“This is a very straightforward bill in the sense that what it is doing is establishing a framework of permits and controls around automated vehicles,” Coalition MP David Davis said in Parliament.

“It removes a number of unnecessary regulatory barriers for trials and gives legal certainty for trials so that insurance cover is available during these trials in the event of an accident or injury.”

“It is one of those bills on which we say the government is heading in the right direction. We all see the potential and the opportunity for automated vehicles, and we look forward to seeing how that will play out in the future.”

Victoria has now followed in the footsteps of South Australia and New South Wales in introducing legislation to pave the way for driverless vehicle technology tests.

South Australia became the first state in Australia last year to pass such laws, requiring organisations to apply directly to the transport minister and meet certain insurance benchmarks.

New South Wales also passed legislation last year allowing for a two-year driverless bus pilot, while Western Australia is currently trialling an electric driverless shuttle buses and autonomous taxis.

Victoria and South Australia are shaping up to be the two main contenders to become the main hub for driverless vehicle technology in Australia, and the new laws are hoped to attract companies to conduct testing in the state.

Mr Donellan said Victoria’s approach was leading the way for Australian jurisdictions.

“Some jurisdictions are providing for trials by granting exemption from safety laws. However, this is a problematic approach that could create uncertainty in enforcing any breaches of permit conditions,” he said.

“Victoria’s approach does not diminish obligations and protections – it re-allocates accountabilities from the driver to the parties trailing the vehicles.”

“This bill demonstrates the Victorian government’s commitment to supporting the development of emerging technology and fostering innovation in the transport sector.”

There are already trials of semi-autonomous cars on EastLink and other freeways around Victoria.

The Victorian Greens supported the bill, but MP Samantha Dunn said it was important that legislation focusing on driverless vehicles also focuses on the associated societal issues.

“The Victorian government needs to have the foresight to ensure our automated vehicle regulatory framework is not solely focused on safety and on-road interactions,” Ms Dunn said.

“We need to ensure that at a macro level we ensure automated vehicles help improve the running of our transport system and do not further clog up our streets,” she said.

“The promise of automated vehicles in reducing deaths and injuries on our roads is significant, but accidents will happen as no algorithm is perfect and no machine learning system is infallible.

“We therefore need a robust regulatory framework for the testing phase of automated vehicles and one that we can evolve into a full-scale management regime once vehicles are allowed onto the broader road network.”

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