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Autonomous cars here before 2020

Volvo victory: ARRB managing director Gerard Waldron proudly presents Australia's first registered autonomous vehicle, following a successful public road demonstration. Photo credit: Jo-Anna Robinson.

First successful autonomous trial could herald Australia as a world leader


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16 Nov 2015

AUSTRALIA'S first driverless car demonstration has gone “without a hitch”, according to the country's leading advisor on roads and transport, but the Australian Road Research Board (ARRB) says it is not resting on its laurels.

The success of the trial in South Australia last week is just the start of increased autonomous vehicle research, and will be followed by a variety of national demonstrations, resulting in functioning self-driving cars on our roads before 2020, says ARRB.

As part of its Australian Driverless Vehicle Initiative (ADVI), ARRB successfully drove a specially prepared Volvo XC90 along a section of the Southern Highway in South Australia without human intervention, completing the second phase of the plan.

The demonstration was intended to bring the state of technology to the attention of both politicians and the public, increasing awareness of self-driving cars and highlighting that production versions are not as far fetched as many believe.

For the trial, authorities closed the public road as a precautionary measure, but as the South Australian government has recently passed a bill allowing the testing of driverless cars, the measure was a formality.

In an exclusive interview with GoAuto, ARRB managing director Gerard Waldron said the last of five phases would be complete in about three years, with autonomous vehicles likely to be available on Australian roads in the near future.

“Now that we have got the conversation going amongst governments, the opportunity for them to have their freeways assessed and licenced for that operation is a very real prospect now,” he said.

“In three years time you will be sharing freeways with people who are driving hands-free because the vehicle technology will be at that level by that stage.

“Any time you do a demonstration without a hitch, it's a very good day. It was a fantastic showcase for the technology and it certainly achieved what we were looking for, which was to get the conversation moving so the public and our politicians are aware that this is a part of our future and it's much closer than we think.” While many other nations around the world have already conducted their own testing of autonomous technology, Australia is a relative latecomer to the field, but Mr Waldron explained that we have an advantage.

As a large nation with relatively few states, Mr Waldron said coordinated nationwide legislation and infrastructure has the potential to overtake other global regions that have been in the game for longer.

“This is one of those areas where Australia has an advantage over other parts of the world. The European Union is good at coordinating things but they do have 35 countries to deal with, 50 states of the USA have to agree, but Australia has already got quite a good track record of nationally consistent legislation.

“There are opportunities for us to get our act together quite quickly and therefore be a good place for the vehicle industry to trial their products.” While Volvo is the only car-maker to be an official partner of the ADVI, Mr Waldron revealed that others were now approaching the initiative “We are talking to a lot of different manufacturers,” he said. “Volvo and the South Australian government distinguished themselves by stepping forward first, but others are not too far behind.

“We expect there to be more brands represented in the ongoing trials and demonstrations. It's fair to suggest that we are talking about reasonably up-market models.

“We did all the approaching to begin with, but once we got a little bit of momentum, people started to approach us. It was a fair bit of legwork to get things started.” Buoyed by the successful SA trial, the ARRB is ramping up its activity with more trials, demonstrations and enterprises made possible by increasing assistance from partners.

“During 2016 we will be doing a lot of other things besides. The Australian Driverless Vehicle Initiative now has 36 partners and it will probably be about 50 by the time we get to Christmas “They include insurance companies, car companies, technology companies and government organisations. They're sponsoring the ADVI initiative so that we can set up a centre of excellence that will operate out of Adelaide.” Mr Waldron explained that another major milestone would be Volvo's next key trial in 2017, when the car-maker will commission a fleet of 100 autonomous cars on a stretch of Gothenberg road.

“The cars will fundamentally be available from that time, it's just a matter of getting some of them here and organise a way of using them here.” Before that though, the ARRB has many key steps and phases in the program to execute and while Mr Waldron could not reveal full details, he did say that the rest of the country was now a focus.

“We will be working with governments on regulation, we will be working with technology providers on demonstrations. We will have trials and demonstrations running all around the country in 2016.

“Possibly before the end of the year, there will be an announcement about the next trial and that will be an extension of the technology into a different application.

“We have given ourselves a three-year time frame for the whole of the current forward program of ADVI so we are really talking from 2016 to 2019 and our expectation is that there will be something of a roll out of level-three cars by 2020.” With passenger vehicles already catered for in the first demonstration, it is likely the ADVI will next turn its attention to commercial vehicles – a key area that has already been experimented with in countries such as Germany and the United States.

“The freight area is another one that is really big. Australia spends twice as much per dollar of GDP (gross domestic product) on transport as the average OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) country,” said Mr Waldron. “Here is an opportunity to get a big reduction in the cost of those movements by using trucks without drivers.

“The first thing that you'll see is what they call platooning. That's where trucks run very close together because they are coupled together electronically. You get huge aerodynamic advantages and fuel consumption advantages.” Securing the South Australian parliamentary bill was a major milestone for ARRB but Mr Waldron explained that there were still a number of legislative steps required before widespread use of driverless cars was possible.

“The National Transport Commission (NTC) has the job of getting national productivity through regulatory reform and it has a project to look at the impacts and necessity of a coordinated framework for driverless vehicles.

“It is my understanding that the Transport Infrastructure Committee (TIC) has told NTC to get on with it. That means that beyond the trial, other states will probably put (legislation) into place similar to SA. For the full implementation we could have a nationally consistent regulation.” ARRB is owned by the state, local and federal governments of Australia and New Zealand with 11 member organisations including the various motoring bodies such as VicRoads in Victoria, and was created to ensure the most efficient use of transport research funds.

The company has strong international connections and has been accumulating research data from other countries as different trials, including autonomous driving, have been carried out.

“I've spent three years talking about this and making presentations mostly with people looking at me like I was mad, but now we are being complemented for our foresight.”

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