Driverless inquiry underway

While driverless technology is knocking on our door in Australia, both government and the bus industry are trying to forecast the social and employment flow-on effect of its eventual introduction

Driverless inquiry underway
The Australian Government is keen to gain an understanding of driverless technology and more specifically social acceptance levels and safety


The Federal Government Standing Committee on Industry, Innovation, Science and Resources is looking into the social issues relating to driverless vehicles in Australia, including cars, trucks, buses and trains.

Committee Chair Michelle Landry MP says the inquiry will bridge an important knowledge gap in the growing body of research about this emerging technology.

"Our inquiry will focus on issues such as the social acceptance of the technology, how it might benefit Australians with limited mobility, and the potential social implications for driverless vehicles in the industrial and public transport sectors," she says

"Other investigations have started to address the technological aspects of driverless vehicles or possible regulatory approaches, and Australia is already at the forefront of using or trialling this new technology."

There is a driverless shuttle bus on trial in Perth, millions of tonnes of iron ore are already being transported on driverless haulage trucks, and driverless trains are to be used on a new Sydney metro line.

"This inquiry will take the next step with the Committee seeking to understand and encourage open discussion on some of the complex social issues that have yet to be tackled," Landry explains.

The Bus industry Confederation (BIC) made a thorough submission prior to the February 6 cut-off date and is confident that the insight it provided to the government will shine through, once the committee has come up with its recommendations to progress action on the social issues identified, which is expected to happen later this year.

BIC executive director Michael Apps says driverless vehicles will impact on the transportation industry and the mass transit systems and will have an impact on employment.

"We raised not only points specifically relating to the bus industry, but also other behavioural and safety considerations relating to the vehicle and the passenger," he says.

"Driverless vehicles are a long way off yet, both in terms of technology and establishing the environment for them to run."

Apps says that there are a great number of questions that need to be answered before further development occurs, to ensure the personal safety and security of individuals on buses and that physical access and opportunities are not reduced.

"The move to driverless vehicles needs to be understood in association with other transport changes taking place, such as shared vehicles and road pricing reform," Apps says.

"There are a number of issues that have to be addressed first such as road safety, personal safety and security, social inclusion, population growth, urban sprawl, possible job losses, and the need to address greenhouse gasses and traffic congestion."

Apps says that there is an opportunity to use driverless vehicles as a stimulus to review how mobility in urban and regional settings should be addressed, with policy, regulations and planning put in place to better link land use and transport in this changing technological setting.

"A first step however needs be a thorough analysis and future real world trials of where autonomous vehicles and what types of autonomous vehicles will be accepted by the community for use.

"We appreciate that the role of Government is to try and find a delicate balance between addressing the challenges that this technology poses not just for legislation and regulations, together with the social implications, but also to be seen not to be standing in the way of innovation."

While the mining industry already uses driverless technology in its trucks, these trucks are used in mines and do not carry passengers in an urban setting and so a solid legal framework needs to be established first.

"We have witnessed technology impacting the taxi industry," Apps explains.

"There it has been proposed that the creation of ride sharing technology does not mean job losses for the taxi industry but has forced them to be competitive.

"The impact of technology cannot be said to have the same effect on the heavy vehicle industry, which is responsible, not only for public safety but also transportation of people and goods in a safe and reliable manner."

So while the prospect of driverless buses provides an interesting glimpse into what’s coming, Australia is still a long way off in terms of using this technology to provide public transport services…still the law-makers had better get cracking and all industry must move with the times.


Questions raised by BIC:

  • How do we establish a moral decision about how to respond to an impending accident – e.g. save the passenger or save the pedestrians who will be hit?
  • How will the driverless vehicle operate in very poor visibility e.g. dense fog and snow?
  • Will the car’s cameras correctly interpret a view of a pothole, puddle, oil spill and shadows?
  • Maps are needed with considerably more detail than is presently available, such as traffic signs, and roadworks. Such maps will need continual up-dating.
  • What will be the impact on road congestion of a fleet of driverless vehicles?
  • How would incidents of criminal behaviour be managed?

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