​Innovation committee toys with separate lanes for autonomous vehicles in Australia

The Parliamentary Innovations Committee has put forward the idea of creating a separate lane on Australia's main highways to allow the public to get used to the idea of autonomous vehicles.

The Australian Parliamentary Innovations Committee has quizzed the Department of Industry, Innovation and Science on what hurdles the country needs to overcome before autonomous vehicles can find themselves on Australia's roads.

Deputy Committee Chair Luke Gosling asked the department's spokespeople if the addition of a third lane on the country's highways would be a good move in getting the public used to sharing roads with driverless vehicles.

According to Gosling, one of the biggest issues that Australia needs to grapple with is the interaction between human drivers and automated vehicles, highlighting that human drivers are actually the problem.

"That's certainly something that's being looked at," a department spokesperson said. "I know that with electric vehicles, for example New Zealand, are trying to incentivise the uptake of electric vehicles so people can use transport bus lanes ... so they're offering benefits -- cheaper rego and things like that -- so I think through what we're seeing through encouragement of electric vehicles, I think there's a link to what we might see here with autonomous vehicles that might give consumers a bit more assurance that it's okay."

The department said it comes back to consumer awareness, however, and the more the public is shown the capabilities of autonomous vehicles and what that could mean in terms of easing traffic congestion and allowing independence to those who cannot drive themselves.

"I think it's true to say that you cannot think of vehicles in isolation of the road they're driving on," another spokesperson said.

"This is about transport systems, it's not just about the vehicles.

"I think you need to think about the vehicle and the road as a package, of course there will be different levels of smarts you have to put in the roads or the vehicles and there will be different types of transport as opposed to how we might think about autonomous cars versus trains and other things, but essentially the problem being wrestled with is the transport service."

Of particular importance to the committee is the safety of passengers and non-passengers, the security risks and privacy requirements of automated technologies, the legal frameworks and changes to regulations, the management of labour market impacts, accessibility outcomes for rural and regional Australians, and the accessibility outcomes for disability groups and the ageing population.

"A critical part of the technology development would have to be developing systems that people have confidence in," the department added. "I think you could take that as a given that there has to be a level of assurance that they can cope with unusual circumstances."

Department of Industry, Innovation and Science also highlighted that in order for driverless vehicles to be used in less metro areas of Australia, the country's transport and IT infrastructure will need to be upgraded.

Pointing to the federal government's Mobile Blackspot program, the department highlighted in its submission to the committee [PDF] last month that mobile communications are critical to enabling connected vehicle technology; however, it conceded that Australia currently has large areas which experience limited to no mobile voice or data coverage and that it would need to be resolved before rural areas could take full advantage of autonomous vehicles.

State governments within Australia have kicked off their own trials of autonomous vehicle technology; the announcement that more than 2,000 people participated in Australia's first driverless electric bus trial in South Perth was made earlier on Wednesday.

The Royal Automobile Club (RAC) of Western Australia kicked off the trials in August last year with support from the state government and the City of South Perth.

Similarly, the South Australian government, in partnership with Adelaide Airport, kicked off a AU$2.8 million trial of driverless shuttles this week, similar to the RAC Intellibus, to transport passengers to and from the airport's terminal and the long-term carpark.

Should the trials prove successful, the driverless shuttles will be become a permanent part of the airport's operations, with Adelaide Airport managing director Mark Young explaining that a small fleet of autonomous electric vehicles would replace the airport's current diesel-powered shuttle buses.

In March last year, the South Australian government approved on-road trials of driverless cars on the state's roads after the state government successfully carried out the country's first driverless car trial on Adelaide's Southern Expressway.

The November 2015 trial involved two Volvo XC90 vehicles that demonstrated automatic lane keeping, adaptive cruise control, and active queue assist.

The first successful trials of semi-automated vehicles were completed on Melbourne's EastLink in December, with the Volvo S90 driving on its own in live traffic.

Victorian tolling company Transurban also began testing autonomous vehicles on state roads this month to understand how the cars interact with real-life road conditions such as overhead lane signals, electronic speed signs, and line markings.

Queensland is also preparing for driverless and connected vehicles, with plans under way for what the state government called the largest on-road testing trial in Australia.

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