Second to increased safety, the most frequently discussed benefit of increasingly automated technology is how driverless vehicles will improve access and mobility for many people currently unable to operate a car. Advocates argue that both the lives of those individuals and the broader Australian society and economy will be improved by the increased opportunities afforded by driverless vehicles.
This chapter outlines some of those benefits, as well as identifying some concerns with the assumptions of increased access through driverless vehicles. The Committee considers it of the utmost importance that the benefits of driverless vehicles should be available to those Australians who need them the most.
As multiple witnesses noted, Australia is a signatory to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), which includes obligations relevant to mobility: ‘States Parties shall take effective measures to ensure personal mobility with the greatest possible independence for persons with disabilities’.
People with disability
The 2016 survey conducted by the Australian Driverless Vehicle Initiative (ADVI) found that the greatest perceived benefit – identified by 82% of respondents – of autonomous vehicles would be ‘mobility for the impaired’.
As ADVI notes, while driverless vehicles may improve the lives of all Australians, the effect will be particularly marked for people with disability:
The introduction of driverless vehicles offer a previously unobtainable level of freedom that could see them relying far less on carers, family and public transport. Driverless vehicles offer a user the opportunity to travel further to work, explore locations not serviced by public transport and better enjoy their transport experience.
Research led by Professor Simone Pettigrew of Curtin University found that ‘By far, the greatest benefit that people could see from autonomous vehicles was the increased independence of people who currently cannot drive’.
Dr Bissell of the ARC Robotic Futures Research Team also noted the importance of autonomous vehicles in improving mobility, arguing that mobility is central to:
… enabling people to thrive in everyday life—how mobility relates to access to services, how mobility relates to access to employment, how mobility relates to access for leisure. Mobility is not just about getting from A to B; it is about opening up and enabling people's capacities in all kinds of ways.
The Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development (DIRD) also pointed to this benefit in its submission, noting the number of Australians which it could affect:
Automated vehicles have the potential to provide mobility to groups such as people with a disability, older people and children who currently have difficulties accessing transport services in our community (IGA, 2016, p. 7). They may also provide an opportunity for governments to service public transport needs in regional areas more effectively and efficiently.
In 2015, almost one in five Australians reported living with disability (18.3 per cent or 4.3 million people). More than half of people with a disability aged 15 to 64 years participated in the labour force (53.4 per cent), which is considerably fewer than those without disability (83.2 per cent) (ABS, 2016b). Highly automated vehicles could improve these outcomes simply by providing more convenient access to transport services for people with a disability (IGA, 2016, p. 7).
Similarly, the Griffith Law Reform Research Team noted a 2009 report which found that 29 per cent of respondents with disability identified transport as a barrier to their day to day life. The identified problems included ‘inability to independently drive, heavy costs for modifications, and poor public transportation services’.
Further, a 2015 survey of drivers with disability found that 90 per cent of respondents identified driving as their preferred mode of transport:
This need for transportation goes beyond a simple ‘getting from a to b’, but is intrinsically tied to an individual’s ability to receive medical treatment, find work, and enjoy freedom and independence that is often inadvertently denied and restricted because of an individual’s disability.
While these are important benefits, the submission from the Queensland University of Technology notes that ‘the realization of these benefits assumes a very high level of autonomy that does not require human intervention’.
The submission from the University of the Sunshine Coast made a similar point, noting that:
When reliable level 5 automation becomes available, this will potentially increase transport options for individuals who are currently unable to apply for a driver’s licence, which could have other benefits for these individuals and society in general (such as increased employment opportunities).
ADVI also highlighted the benefit for older Australians who have lost the ability or will to drive: ‘Australia’s ageing population also stands to benefit from new vehicle technology, which provides an effective transport solution and opportunity to maintain a full and independent life rather than the isolation that can come from losing independent mobility’.
Similarly, DIRD noted that older Australians – around half of who have a disability – may be able to use autonomous vehicles to improve their quality of life:
Highly automated vehicles will enable older people to continue to visit the doctor, do their shopping and participate in the community (Siorokos, 2016). As with current restricted driving licences, people with a disability or medical conditions could qualify for a licence to operate an automated vehicle subject to passing whatever threshold is necessary for a vehicle with that level of automation (Tranter, 2016). Austroads is currently investigating how licencing requirements may need to be adjusted for automated vehicle technology.
Drawing on DIRD statistics, the Griffith Law Reform Research Team noted that approximately 4 000 Australians lost their driving licence in 2016 due to age restrictions and, as Australia’s population continues to age, an increasing number of people will lose their capacity to drive each year. The submission further outlined some of the benefits of increased mobility via autonomous vehicles:
By giving the elderly greater access to this advanced form of transport, this will reduce the issues of isolation, give them greater access to the community, and it will be safer for road users. Autonomous vehicles have been recognised as a mechanism that could achieve both independence and inclusion that the current situation does not achieve for the elderly.
The submission from Maurice Blackburn Lawyers also pointed to the lifestyle improvements which autonomous vehicles could offer older Australians, and further noted the safety consideration:
Elderly drivers are overrepresented in vehicle accident statistics, largely because reflexes can deteriorate with age. For those members of our community with reduced mobility, the introduction of automated vehicles may increase their access to a safer method of transport. This has a further advantage of partially alleviating pressure on our community support networks.
The National Farmers’ Federation highlighted the benefits which driverless vehicles will be able to bring to people in regional, rural and remote Australia:
Elderly, ill or disabled people living on isolated properties are not able to receive the same at home care provided to Australians living in townships. Driverless vehicles could assist in enabling services such as the Commonwealth Home Support Programme to access properties further away from towns by enabling care providers to travel more safely and efficiently by, for example, doing administrative tasks while driving to farms and stations outside of the current radius of care provision. Driverless vehicles could also help facilitate the arduous drive to and from town for Australians living in rural and remote locations, thus enabling them to access health care in town with less reliance on their support network to get to medical appointments.
Concerns about access and equity
While the benefits discussed above are frequently highlighted by autonomous vehicle advocates, the Committee also notes some of the concerns raised in relation to access and equity. A significant barrier to these anticipated benefits – particularly in the short term – will be the likely cost of driverless vehicles. As with most new technologies, the initial cost of fully automated passenger vehicles is likely to be higher than for existing driver-operated equivalents.
As the QUT submission notes, ‘However, in order to achieve these benefits it will be important to ensure that automated transportation options are affordable and accessible’.
Similarly, the ARC Robotic Futures Research Team’s Dr Bissell, arguing that mobility has a central place in people’s capacity to access services, employment and leisure, also emphasised that autonomous vehicles may serve to widen social inequalities if access to them is limited for those who need them.
Concerns about affordability and accessibility are amplified for Australians in regional, rural and remote areas, as academics from QUT noted:
In Australia, access and equity issues will be also a significant problem for rural and remote communities. Not only is the road infrastructure unlikely to be ready for passenger vehicles in remote environments but the acceptance, affordability, and maintenance of such technology in remote areas may be difficult to implement. Planning for the introduction of automated vehicles and incentives to encourage their use as part of strategies to reduce road congestion should be inclusive of the needs of persons with disabilities, the elderly, and those living in rural and remote areas.
The ARC Robotic Futures Research Team pointed to similar concerns, noting that the increasing prevalence of autonomous vehicles may result in a widening of the digital divide, whereby older drivers – along with less wealthy ones – are unable to access the benefits of these vehicles:
In Australia an unprecedented number of older drivers will be on the highways in the next few decades and these older drivers are not liable to forego automobile-dependence (Nakanishi and Black 2015). A chief risk here is the creation of a ‘two-tier society’—that is, through class or age—between conventional road vehicles and those that are networking with the infrastructure, autonomous from human control and connected to each other (McCarthy 2016). Moreover, as driverless systems mature infrastructural investments will no doubt target affordances that are irrelevant or deleterious to solely human driven vehicles, such as vehicle-to-vehicle (e.g., platooning) or vehicle-to-infrastructure (e.g., wireless enabled traffic lights) communication systems (Lipson and Kurman 2016: 128). These will further alienate those unable or unwilling to utilize driverless systems.
The Motor Trades Association Queensland made a similar point, emphasising that the Australians who would stand to benefit the most from driverless vehicle technology may be amongst those to have the least engagement with it:
The main down-side to general social acceptance is what may be termed as ‘techno fear’ for the upper ‘baby-boomer’ age bracket. In this circumstance, there is a reverse relationship where the people to benefit the most from autonomous vehicles will be older generations but it will be the younger cohorts who will assimilate the technology at the most rapid rate and apply it for professional or private advantage.
It appears that a challenge for government, community organisations and industries over the longer term will be the implementation of programs to assist older generations to digest the new technological knowledge and adjust to the benefits of emerging transport choices which include accessing or owning autonomous vehicles.
The MTA Queensland also noted the likely geographic divide that could accompany those of age and class:
There is a need to address the social equity of the introduction of autonomous vehicle technology. Economies of scale and business models are likely to favour the urban uptake of this technology and if the social utility of the introduction of autonomous vehicles is to be equitable, support programmes for rural and regional areas need to be considered.
Similarly, Mr Stuart Ballingal from Austroads argued that the social benefits of autonomous vehicles should not be the sole preserve of those in urban areas:
… we often read and hear about the coming automated taxis or ride-share services, that will be able to take you point to point, and how they will have great benefits for those who do not otherwise have access to mobility because they cannot get a drivers licence or whatever the case may be. That is fine in a dense urban area, but we cannot overlook what rural areas require. If they do not have the population to commercially support that service or they do not have the infrastructure to support that vehicle technology, then they are going to miss out on the societal benefits from those new mobility services. That is a key point I would like to raise with the committee: do not focus just on dense urban areas, because it could be at the expense of societal benefit to rural areas.
While increasingly automated vehicles have been posited by many advocates as improving accessibility and mobility options for people with disability, Deaf Australia noted that in some instances the reverse is true, and accessibility for people with disability is actually being lowered:
Yet, many new developments on vehicles (both commercial and private) have consistently relied on sounds and/ or audible alerts which prevents deaf people taking advantage of a range of features available to non-deaf people. This can lead to preventing them from potential in obtaining meaningful employment.
We believe this lack of universal design where sounds are not accompanied by visual systems has intentionally or unintentionally caused various barriers where products, services, environments are not accessible for deaf and hard of hearing people who require specialised modifications. This further marginalises deaf and hard of hearing people.
For that reason, Deaf Australia recommended that all vehicles which use an audible warning and/or operation system should also include visual systems.
The Committee notes that a wide range of witnesses and submitters have identified increased mobility – and therefore improved quality of life – as a likely benefit of driverless vehicles. The Committee recognises this as an important social benefit.
The Committee believes that great social benefit can come from driverless vehicles, and that it is of critical importance that the identified benefits of improved mobility and access for people with disability and older Australians are realised. The Committee further emphasises that many of these benefits will be felt most strongly in regional and rural areas and therefore notes that the infrastructure to enable this must be of a sufficient standard in those areas.
The Committee recommends that the Commonwealth Government’s preparation for autonomous vehicles includes consideration of how the needs of people with disability, older Australians and those in regional and rural areas can be met via automated vehicles.