Fed Govt urged to fund automated PT trials

The House of Representatives Standing Committee on Industry, Innovation, Science and Resources has recommended that Federal Government join forces with state governments and local councils to fund trials of automated vehicles with a public transport application in urban and regional areas

Fed Govt urged to fund automated PT trials
It is vital that that existing Australian bus and coach operators are engaged with and have an ongoing key role to play in the adoption of automated vehicles


The recommendation came largely from a submission made earlier this year by the Bus Industry Confederation (BIC) to an inquiry on social issues relating to land-based automated vehicles in Australia.

BIC executive director Michael Apps presented at a public hearing on the matter in late May this year. His aim very broadly is to ensure that existing bus and coach operators are engaged and have an ongoing key role to play in the adoption of automated vehicles [and related on-road legislation that must be put in place first] from a very early stage, as we gradually edge closer to the use of automated vehicles.

There were 47 submissions in total from academics, transport association directors, transport insurance and law specialists and politicians to name a few.

To quote directly from the latest report on social issues relating to land-based automated vehicles in Australia; "The Committee is of the view that improving public transport options, particularly in regional and rural Australia, will offer a substantial public benefit."

"As with other aspects of driverless vehicles, it is likely that attitudes towards driverless public transport will change once more people experience the technology. The Committee therefore is of the view that trials of autonomous vehicles in Australia should focus on vehicles with public transport applications. The existing trials of buses in Perth and Darwin could provide models for other trials.

"While the Intellibus itself – like the Darwin Waterfront driverless bus trial that began in February 2017 – is only a small vehicle, and therefore not comparable to large commuter buses, the Committee nonetheless recognises that these trials serve important roles in increasing people’s familiarity with driverless vehicle technology.

"Further, they point to a potential future application of public transport, in which small autonomous vehicles provide more focused and localised services than has traditionally been the role of public transport. The emergence of driverless vehicle technology will bring about a change in the role of public transport without necessarily replicating existing public transport structures."


Bus Industry Confederation

The BIC explained that the public may not willingly accept entirely driverless buses.

"The concept of a driverless bus, in particular large buses, may be technologically possible but the reality of mass transit and school bus services operating in this way are much less certain for a variety of operational and personal safety and societal issues," Apps explains.

"The unknown element from a bus perspective is if it is going to be accepted by users concerned about safety and security. Measures to gain the trust of the community in relation to safety and security will be very important, but ultimately they may not be successful.

"This issue has the potential to block the use of driverless buses and may limit the technology to personal conveyances and may even restrict them."

The BIC pointed to overseas experience to support this argument, noting that a ‘driver’ of a bus seems to be preferred by many passengers.

"One factor that has been recognised after actual trials of driverless buses on guided busways in France is that passengers do have concerns of trust and safety when a driver is not aboard," Apps explained to the committee.

"In this example, drivers were returned to the bus to ease concern, despite the fact that the vehicle remained self-driven.

"The physical presence of the driver was an important psychological factor, even if it was only for ‘override’ capabilities if required. Trusting future technology will be a major challenge for many individuals."


Not just BIC

The Australian Driverless Vehicle Initiative (ADVI) provided further research support for this point, based on its 2016 survey of Australians’ attitudes towards autonomous vehicles. That survey found that only 43 per cent of respondents were comfortable with the idea of travelling on public transport – such as a bus or taxi – without a driver. Only slightly more (46 per cent of respondents) were comfortable with the suggestion of share cars – travelling in a small vehicle with strangers.

If a non-driving staff member on board the vehicle will still be required, then the benefits, other than improved safety, of driverless vehicles to mass public transport may be limited.

Many of the expected benefits – particularly for regional areas – described above are based on the premise that driverless public transport options will be flexible and more economical than those requiring human drivers.

A related point was made by the Motor Trades Association Queensland, noting that the impact of autonomous vehicles on the public transport sector need to be understood in the context of Australia’s overwhelmingly private transport-focused pattern:

Public transport systems/modes may emerge that provide solutions not available previously, but to date public transport has not been the transport mode of choice and it seems on average less than 10 per cent of Australia’s workforce utilises public transport to travel to work.

Private motor vehicles have been the transport of choice resulting in urban transport congestion, environmental degradation and generating social cost for communities and cities.

The House of Representatives Standing Committee on Industry, Innovation, Science and Resources has now developed 10 recommendations that it will work on as it strives to grasp the many social issues relating to land-based automated vehicles in Australia.


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