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VicRoads wants to play active role in autonomy

Road to change: VicRoads chief executive John Merritt said the rollout of autonomous cars will take longer than many in the industry think.

The roll out of autonomous vehicles will take longer than hoped: Merritt

14 Aug 2017

ROAD authorities and operators will have to play a part in the evolution of autonomous vehicle technology to ensure the coming revolution delivers the social gains expected, according to VicRoads chief executive John Merritt.

But Mr Merritt said the revolution will not be coming soon as there were still “massive problems” to overcome relating to infrastructure and legislation.

He was speaking at the launch of Victoria’s autonomous vehicle trial on live roads, which will see vehicles supplied by BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Tesla and Volvo trialled on the M80 ring road and the Monash and Tullamarine toll roads.

Mr Merritt said road authorities were not going to sit by and simply facilitate and observe what he said would be a revolution on the roads.

“We’d be one of the most road safety conscious countries in the world and we are, quite rightly, going to be very demanding about how this technology integrates into our system,” he said last week. “We need to be really clear about the things that we want from it, and what we want is three basic things.

“First, this technology is the beginning of the end of road trauma, and we really want that. So we are going to push you (the manufacturers) as hard as we can to reduce road trauma.

“Secondly, motor vehicles are big carbon emitters and the pressure will continue to come on road transport to do its part. We want to see that element advanced.

“And the third thing is we have a fast growing population stretching our infrastructure and we want to see that productivity uplift. We need to get more out of this road system and there is potential for this revolution to do that.

“This is not just a free-for-all. We want these things.”

Mr Merritt said some recent estimates about when autonomy might be viable for general release was a long way ahead of reality.

“The destination is clear: at some point you’ll hop into these cars and they’ll take you somewhere. When that is, nobody knows. How long it takes to get there nobody knows, and how we get there nobody knows.

“With the destination, we’re right, but there are some massive problems to be solved to get to that point.”

As an example, he said recent trials on Victorian roads showed at least one lane-keeping system was colour-blind while others relied heavily on a fog line (an unbroken white line at the side of the road) for lane-keeping.

“Certainly, the Mercedes version of (lane-keeping) isn’t completely dependent on the fog line. It can pick up gutters for the lane-keep. However, because we are upgrading the Monash Freeway, the M80 freeway, and the Tulla, and we open all the lanes in the peaks, we use white and yellow lines.

“Well, the technology can’t handle yellow lines at the moment. That’s not surprising. It’s not designed for it. I’ve had the chance of riding in these cars before and I am interested in how they use the fog lines.

“And we don’t have fog lines everywhere around the state. What do you do? One of these cars doesn’t need fog lines, one does and one’s better on gutters and edges.”

Mr Merritt said manufacturers and the road authorities needed to keep trialling the technology in order to discover all the weaknesses and strengths of the systems. He said one of the issues to be examined during the Victorian trial was the height and positioning of traffic signs.

“What do the cameras need in order to recognise a sign in terms of consistency of location? Because, obviously, up until now that’s been based on a driver’s sight-line and there is a fair range in that. There’s also the issue of whether the automated emergency braking radar/cameras respond inadvertently to roadside furniture and signs. They might provide a false trigger.”

He said VicRoads had already responded to a Gippsland resident who noticed some unexpected behaviour from his automatic emergency braking system.

“We’ve had some correspondence from a driver recently in Gippsland who was driving a vehicle with AEB saying he feels that it is detecting a false trigger. We have been out there driving with him. It’s obviously a bend, maybe a dip, and it is affecting his system. It becomes uncertain, so it starts slowing down.”

He said the reliability of the sensors used to read the road and keep the vehicles on course would also have to be improved.

“Essentially this technology at the moment is working on what it can see. So snow and fog are still major challenges.”

Sorting out these glitches will not be done quickly and Mr Merritt said he believed it would take much longer than people expected.

“I have met many people in this area, and nobody overstates it. They say, ‘look, it’s no time soon’. These are seriously big challenges to fix.”

Mr Merritt had also been advised not to commit to any particular technology for the necessary road-side transponders that will be required to introduce advanced intelligent transport systems which, together with connected, autonomous vehicles, will achieve greater productivity from the road network.

“When you talk about autonomous vehicles, it is always in the context of connected, autonomous, shared and electric, the so-called CASE. You tend not to see one without the other three.

“The connected element, where this car talks to that car and talks to the traffic lights is really a critical part of this. One of the issues that road operators are acutely aware of is, OK, what do we do with that set of traffic lights and all our light systems and all of that technology?“That’s why the trialling is important because you just want to be as close to it as you can so we can make the most of it.”

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