Committee concerned Australia's reactive attitude could see it fall behind with autonomous transport

Department of Infrastructure, Regional Development and Cities, however, believes the important factor will be how the different technologies involved in autonomous transport will play out.

The Standing Committee on Infrastructure, Transport and Cities is concerned that Australia will continue its history of being reactive, rather than proactive, when it comes to building out the infrastructure required for autonomous transport.

Probing the Department of Infrastructure, Regional Development and Cities (DIRDC) as part of its inquiry into automated mass transit, committee chair Liberal MP John Alexander on Tuesday night said Australia has a problem when it implements fixes with very little forward planning.

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"We're stuck with a situation of retrofitting infrastructure and then planning around that as we try to seek to strategically decentralise. It would appear that, here, the transition is the trick to this," Alexander said.

DIRDC executive director, portfolio coordination, and research, Gayle Milnes, responded by saying the future success of autonomous vehicles in Australia will come down to the interplay of different technologies and how they will play out, rather than explicitly infrastructure.

"Infrastructure Victoria have done some very good work around these issues, looking at possible futures ... and how the mix of shared vehicles versus privately owned vehicles, automated vehicles, not-so autonomous vehicles, electric vehicles, and hydrogen vehicles might play together," she explained.

"They do draw some conclusions from that. There are some things that seem to be actions that you could take now that would be 'no regrets' like certain maintenance of roads and common road signing, et cetera."

Where planning is concerned, Milne said there is also the option of developing a range of different environments and different policy options or tools, such as lane preferencing, and that it isn't just the infrastructure element.

"The solution for Melbourne, for example, could be quite different to the solution for a regional centre like Wagga, for example. So it is likely that we are going to have to see how those different technologies play out or anticipate how those different technologies play out and think through what policy instruments you might use in the different types of environments. So it is not necessarily a one-size-fits-all thing," she added.

DIRDC was asked when Australians could expect a driverless vehicle to be in place.

Focusing on a tram due to it being flagged as the most plausible mode of autonomous transport, Roland Pittar, DIRDC's Office of Future Transport Technology general manager, said conditional automation -- that is not full automation in all circumstances -- is probably something that will be available around the early to mid-2020s, but that would still require drivers to operate in more complex traffic environments.

The Office of Future Transport Technology was established in October. For a cost of AU$9.7 million, the new office is charged with the responsibility of preparing for the arrival of automated vehicles.

The office will work alongside state and territory counterparts, positioning itself in a leadership role, to make sure future transport technologies are implemented in a "more successfully and responsibly" way.

Specifically, the office is expected to consider future infrastructure needs, ensure automated vehicles are safe, make sure cybersecurity safeguards are in place, and support Australian businesses in taking advantage of new commercial opportunities.

It hopes to make the regulatory settings "workable" and nationally consistent, ensuring that they fit with emerging United Nations regulatory developments and are consistent with related Commonwealth policies and laws -- including those relating to privacy and data use.

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