Driverless cars are no George Jetson joke – they’re already working impressively, as Transport Minister Stephen Mullighan and his departmental chief Michael Deegan saw for themselves recently.
Mullighan has revealed to InDaily that he and Deegan were impressed by how the technology has advanced during discussions at global tech giant Google’s Mountain View headquarters near San Francisco in January.
Just a few weeks later – on February 10 – the idea of changing legislation to cater for driverless cars drew raised eyebrows when it was flagged in Governor Hieu Van Le’s speech to open the new Parliament.
The Government’s claim that driverless cars would revolutionise transport was treated by some commentators as a joke – a futuristic fantasy.
But Mullighan told InDaily that driverless functions were already available in many cars – such as anti-collision systems and automatic reverse parking – and SA’s archaic road transport legislation had failed to keep pace.
Flagging a complete overhaul of the Road Traffic Act and Motor Vehicles Act, Mullighan said accommodating new technologies would be one part of renewed legislation which he hoped to have in Parliament before the end of this year.
Our legislation, he says, assumes a driver is in control of the car – but the future could see third parties, such as the car’s manufacturer, being recognised as a vehicle’s operator.
“If you talk to Google, they say they are completely open to being recognised as the operators of the vehicle,” Mullighan said.
It was only one of the eye-opening experiences Mullighan had at Mountain View (see the video above for a demonstration of a Google self-driving car).
He was surprised at how far Google had come in automating a vehicle, using a highly complex system of lasers to “see” the road environment, combined with information from real-life mapping.
“To be honest, I thought that the progress they would have made would have been less,” he said. “They showed us some footage of a prototype model of their driverless car taking some people from the Mountain View regular community for a drive.
“It gave me a bit of a wake-up call. It’s not necessarily the Government’s role to be facilitating the advancement of this technology – obviously the private market is barrelling ahead in leaps and bounds – but how should we be ready to provide for the roll-out for this?”
The short answer is that he is convinced that South Australia should become a jurisdiction which is ahead of the technological curve.
The potential benefits, he says, are huge, including significant reductions in motor vehicle crashes and the resulting fatalities and injuries (90 per cent of crashes can be put down to driver error), improvements in traffic congestion, and allowing people with a disability and the elderly to maintain independence (they wouldn’t need to “drive”, but could enjoy all the benefits of maintaining a licence).
“Do we want to be in a situation like we were in the 1990s when European vehicle-makers didn’t want to sell diesel vehicles on the Australian market because our diesel fuel wasn’t good enough? Are we going to hold back these technologies from the Australian market because our legislative and regulatory regime isn’t able to contemplate them?”
Mullighan’s visit to Google has him convinced that more-or-less autonomous vehicles will be ready for market in the foreseeable future.
“They certainly gave me the impression in what they showed me and the level of confidence they described in their technology that this is something we can expect to see in the next three to five years,” he said.
Mullighan isn’t the only South Australian figure taking the technology very seriously indeed.
Academics and business people believe cars without drivers will be common in the decades ahead, and that it makes sense for South Australia to get ahead of the game.
The National Transport Commission is due to undertake a major study into the regulatory requirements of full autonomous cars and has already done some work paper on technologies currently in use on Australian roads, such as automotic reverse parking and anti-collision systems.
A UniSA researcher, Alex Grant, was preparing to pitch a Cooperative Research Centre on the technology, before the Abbott Government canned the nationwide industry-university program.
National industry body, Intelligent Transport Systems, believes a new national regulatory framework will be needed.
ITS chief executive office Susan Harris told InDaily that existing systems already on the roads – particularly anti-collision systems – were producing excellent results, which were being rewarded by insurance companies.
She said Australia should take action to ensure our regulatory regime doesn’t cause us to miss out on the benefits of driverless vehicles.
And these benefits could transform our transport systems.
UniSA Emeritus Professor of Transport Planning Michael Taylor told a recent Planning Institute/Engineers Australia seminar that driverless cars could reduce congestion to the point that authorities would be able to remove traffic lanes.
For example, a line of driverless cars could potentially drive in sync with each other – taking off at a green light simultaneously, rather than in a concertina fashion.
Mullighan agrees that congestion benefits could be significant, including by feeding Government-generated traffic data direct to car systems so that they automatically take the best route.
His department will produce a discussion paper on the issues over the next few months, with a view to gathering public views and producing draft legislation before the end of the year.
And he’s making no apologies.
“Every politician who talks about this is being derided or mocked about it, which ignores the reality that the cars are already on our roads to varying extents. It ignores the very significant opportunities for the community in the future.”
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