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Autonomous vehicles – driverless or rudderless?


With the recent on-road demonstrations of driverless vehicles in the United States and Australia the prospect of more widespread use of such autonomous operations appears to have moved closer. However there remain questions of safety and technical issues to resolve. In fact, there have been various autonomous vehicle demonstrations and challenges over the past decade, so the technology appears to be maturing into deliverable systems. Still, there are concerns around their integration into the existing vehicle transport networks and for community acceptance. There will also be a need for revised legislation, as it is illegal in Australia for a car to drive without human control. The South Australian state government, however, has already moved to introduce the changes required for autonomous or driverless vehicles to be able to legally driven on the road. Are they really safe?

Technological Change

Autonomous road vehicles are able to drive without human intervention. As technology develops, automation has been increasingly incorporated into vehicles to help improve road safety, reduce the number of tasks for drivers and improve fuel efficiency. Combined with vehicle operation are functions of navigation, safety systems, and interaction with the surrounding environment. As development continues we may see low speed electric pods as public transport in urban areas, vehicles operating in coordinated groups on motorways, and individual vehicles driving autonomously.

Cooperative Intelligent Transport Systems (C-ITS) technologies have also been trialed in Australia. These systems share data between vehicles and roadside infrastructure, such as traffic signals, to increase the information available to drivers about the immediate environment, other vehicles and road users. The ARRB group has undertaken the Australian Driverless Vehicle Initiative (ADVI), with a vision to accelerate the safe and successful introduction of driverless vehicles onto Australian roads. ITS Australia Inc. also promotes the development and deployment of such advanced technologies. The National Transport Commission has begun three projects on driverless vehicle policies. The first driverless car trials in the Southern Hemisphere were held in Adelaide in November 2015.

Driverless Disruption

Driverless cars will involve changes to the accepted business practices and economics as operators adapt to the possibilities that autonomous vehicles represent. Organizations such as Uber and Google are developing driverless vehicles and investigating ridesharing models, with suggestions of such systems offering an alternative to traditional public transport. Meanwhile, Apple is said to be moving to challenge Tesla’s electric vehicles. In recent times, the electronic control systems in vehicles have become increasingly complex and so manufacturers may in future argue that, since they developed and own the software that runs such vehicles, they also have a right to the system that operates the program. Vehicle manufacturers may insist that vehicle purchasers may only hold a license to use the product but with no permission to modify programming or make repairs. Clearly, this has profound implications for consumers.

Autonomous vehicles form part of a set of communications and decision-making technologies sometimes described as the Industrial Internet—an integration of complex machinery with networked software and sensors—which includes the more commonly known term ‘Internet of Things’ (ITS). The standards for in-vehicle, short range vehicle-to-vehicle, vehicle-to-infrastructure and mode-to-mode communication systems are under active research and under discussion at European Union, American and global levels. ITS also has implications for our radiofrequency spectrum planning because of its use of radio signal bandwidth for communicating.

At the 4th meeting of the Australian Transport and Infrastructure Council on 6 November 2015 in Adelaide, the Council considered Australia’s progress in developing, adopting and deploying Intelligent Transport Systems and noted that this work would continue in conjunction with the upcoming review of the Council’s 2011 Policy Framework for Intelligent Transport Systems in Australia. The Council expects to agree to an action plan and revised framework in the first half of 2016. Over the next two decades, there should be changes in legislation and the implementation of C-ITS trials in vehicles and along roads, before the widespread uptake of driverless units in Australia. Here, the vehicle safety standards function sits under the Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development’s Vehicle Certification and Vehicle Regulation activity. Transport Certification Australia is also a national body responsible for providing assurance in the use of computer systems and related intelligent technologies, to support the current and emerging needs of Australian governments.

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