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Victoria hits the road with self-drive vehicle trial

Hitting the road: BMW, Volvo, Mercedes and Tesla will supply cars with Level 2 autonomy – advanced driver-assist features that are already fitted to their high-end models – for use in Victoria’s first trial of autonomous vehicle technology.

Autonomous car trial on live roads to study infrastructure, driver responses

11 Aug 2017

THE Victorian government and road operator Transurban have launched the state’s first trial of autonomous vehicle technology on live roads with the co-operation of the Royal Automobile Club of Victoria and several car manufacturers.

The first phase of the trials will run from now until November and will include cars supplied by BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Tesla and Volvo.

Announcing the details today, Victorian minister for roads and road safety Luke Donnellan said the initial phase would be designed to gauge how well the semi-autonomous features of the cars interacted with the road infrastructure like signs and line markings.

“This is very much about improving safety on our roads,” Mr Donnellan said.

“Because we are building new freeways, we actually need to set the standards so that in the future we have the capacity to see driverless vehicles, which the industry expects within five to 10 years, actually on our roads.”

The trials will be conducted at Level 2 autonomy, where the car can operate without human guidance for short periods in a relatively controlled environment.

These features are already available on the cars being used in the trial. Level 2 is some distance from Level 3 autonomy – as developed by Audi for its new-generation A8, but which remains unavailable until countries have the necessary regulations in place – and Level 4, which involves a high degree of automation.

Level 5 is fully autonomous with no need for driver input.

Mr Donnellan stressed that, during the trials, each car would always have a driver in it and that the driver would always have one hand on the steering wheel.

The first phase would assess the performance of systems including adaptive cruise control, lane-keep assist, autonomous emergency braking and traffic sign recognition.

“That’s existing technology in cars like the Volvo and the others, but we will be testing them in live conditions with a driver with one hand on the wheel,” he said.

“We will actually get a sense of how they deal with tunnels, how they deal with signage – warning signs and vehicle messaging signs – how they deal with overhead signs, how they deal with Bluetooth technology in terms of messaging coming in and out of the cars.” The trials will be a joint arrangement involving VicRoads, Transurban, the Victoria Police and the RACV, using vehicles supplied by the four manufacturers.

“This is a co-operative approach because we can’t do it by ourselves,” Mr Donnellan said. “This is something we need to do so we can provide a safe and reliable environment for driving on our freeways.”

The minister said the city’s toll roads were the most suitable environment for the trials.

“Once we do those we will move on beyond them but, firstly, we’ll get the closed environment trials going before we start going onto the helter-skelter of other roads,” he said.

The RACV is involved in a number of autonomous vehicle trials around Australia and the club’s general manager of public policy Brian Negus said the latest trial was not just about how the technology worked.

“The RACV involvement in these trials is about understanding the vehicle technology, understanding the road system and how the vehicles react to it and, thirdly, what is the human interface, what is the human reaction,” he said.

“From RACV’s point of view, we are very interested in what the community’s reaction will be. What about privacy, what about cyber security and other threats, what about issues like pedestrians wandering out onto the road. How does software make those decisions? That’s what the trial is about.”

Mr Negus said the advent of autonomous vehicles would be a good thing for reducing road trauma and a bad thing for insurance companies.

“As to insurance, yes, that’s one of the issues that will hopefully be impacted positively. That is, there’ll be less crashes. One might say that would be a threat to the insurance business, but we’d rather have less crashes, less lives threatened and more people safe. That’s a better outcome for us.”

Victoria Police acting assistant commissioner Tim Hansen said the force was excited by the trial.

“We have set up our own project team within VicPol to understand what the ramifications are in a police context and what that means for our roadside interceptions,” he said. “Can we drag data down, can we intercept vehicles more safely to avoid a lot of these pursuits and rammings? “But we also need to understand the interface between the different jurisdictions in Victoria and other states. We’d be seeking national legislation, national regulation to govern a lot of this.”

VicRoads chief executive John Merritt said his organisation was keen to find out how autonomous technology dealt with temporary changes in road conditions like roadworks.

“I think one of the reasons we are so keen to have trials happen is because it is the response of this technology to unusual circumstances that is one of the issues we want to explore,” he said.

“Roadworks is likely to be a semi-permanent feature of a successful city like Melbourne and if the technology cannot cope with a situation like that it won’t be good enough for us.

“I can’t overstate how important trialling is. We want this technology because it is the beginning of the end of road trauma. It does offer the potential of the full productive use of our road system.

“These are the things we really want. In order to solve those problems and for the community to accept it, trialling is the answer. We are going to very strong on trialling, in a way that is open, that the community can see. It’s a really important part of the future for us.”

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