Traffic jams: why you’re the problem

AUSTRALIA'S driverless future will start with limited segments of regional dual-carriageway roads years before autonomous vehicles become a common sight on city streets.

That's the view of expert evidence to a Parliamentary Committee investigating the future of automated transport in Australia this month.

Officials from the Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development and Cities and the Australasian New Car Assessment Program (ANCAP) played down suggestions many people will use driverless pods to shuttle to and from work within the next decade.

Committee chairman John Alexander suggested to industry experts that in an "ideal world" commuting in cars would be consigned to history.

"Just as the horse was made redundant and became a recreational vehicle, a private car will become a recreational vehicle, because everything else will be taken care of this way," Alexander said.

Mercedes-Benz F015 driverless car concept works like a mobile office. Picture: Supplied
Mercedes-Benz F015 driverless car concept works like a mobile office. Picture: Supplied

"We had a very interesting person who was represented to us as being the leading mind of autonomous vehicles, and his claim was that, to drive in peak-hour traffic in Sydney in 10 years' time - and this was a couple of years ago - you would need to have an autonomously controlled vehicle."

Charles Page, head of business development and strategy for Siemens Mobility, told the committee technology must "remove the immediate involvement of humans" throughout the transport network.

"Their variability and their mistakes are what's holding up the system and stopping us reaching the maximum possible capacity," he said.

Page suggests people should give up their cars in favour of autonomous public transport, using self-driving pod-like taxis to travel to and from train stations.

But Gayle Milnes, executive director for portfolio co-ordination and research at the Department of Infrastructure, said it is too early to commit to a single scenario.

"I think there are many possible futures to imagine here, and that's one of them," she said.

Milnes told the committee that "a fully driverless future is still some way off, with important engineering and transport planning challenges to be faced".

Her position was echoed by colleague Roland Pittar, general manager of the Department's office of future transport technology.

Autonomous cars would allow people to better use the time they previously spent commuting. Picture: Supplied
Autonomous cars would allow people to better use the time they previously spent commuting. Picture: Supplied

Pittar said any driverless future would begin with "conditional automation" in limited circumstances representing an evolution of existing active cruise control and lane keeping assistance, something that "will be available around the early to mid-2020s, but still requiring drivers to operate in more complex traffic environments".

"A business model could well be that the driver is responsible for taking the vehicle through the more complex city environment until they get to, say, a dual carriageway, and then the vehicle can undertake more of the driving task and operate in an autopilot situation," he said.

"The driver might still be required by the system to take back control if there are some roadworks or if weather conditions aren't suitable, and that sort of thing.

"Then, at the end of the dual carriageway - the last mile, as it's often called - the driver would need to take back control to get from the dual carriageway into the next town or city at which they are dropping off or picking up passengers."

ANCAP chief executive James Goodwin agreed that the initial rollout of self-driving tech would start on "a highway where everyone is going in the same direction and generally the same speed".

Autonomous cars could replace short haul travel and move people short distances like Sydney to Canberra or Melbourne overnight.
Autonomous cars could replace short haul travel and move people short distances like Sydney to Canberra or Melbourne overnight.

"That could be a road where we could say 'you are allowed to drive with your hands off, autonomously'," Mr Goodwin said.

"On the Hume Highway when you get to Campbelltown, for instance, maybe it should be hands back on with signs to tell you that that's where you need to take full control of the vehicle again … trying to expect that an autonomous vehicle could cope with Lygon Street in Melbourne or somewhere in Glebe or Newtown in Sydney is, at this point, very difficult."

The safety expert said consumer confidence and appropriate technical infrastructure are crucial to the successful introduction of autonomous cars.

"We need roads that the car can read," Goodwin said.

"We can't just say that the road and the infrastructure, as it is, will just accommodate this sort of technology - certainly with a mixed fleet - in a safe manner."

Goodwin said self-driving cars would function best when given a space apart from general traffic, and that autonomous vehicle development was closely linked to the introduction of electric and hydrogen-powered cars.

Hardware to support autonomous vehicles did not feature on the 2019 infrastructure priority list released last week but the technology is on the government's radar.

Infrastructure Australia chair Julieanne Alroe said the delivery of a national electric vehicle fastcharging network "has been identified as a high priority initiative".

"The advent of electric vehicles, along with automation, growth in the 'sharing economy' and technological connectivity, could bring the largest transformation the transport sector has seen since the shift from steam to diesel locomotives," she said.



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