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Where Are You On The Road To Self-Driving Vehicles?


OK, so the transition to autonomous vehicles might not be as pressing as winning that next tender, managing staff in a driver shortage or any other of the many issues you deal with on daily basis. Still, recent news stories show it’s a matter you should keep in the back of your mind.

It’s increasingly a question of when, not if, driverless issues will impact the road freight transport industry. With many players in the vehicle industry – not to mention many of the tech sector’s biggest guns including Apple, Google and Samsung – throwing their weight behind the technology, it’s developed a momentum of its own.

Last year, IHS analysts predicted 76 million vehicles with some degree of automation will be sold around the world during the next 20 years. It also substantially increased its predictions of driverless vehicles to 21 million.

The Pieces Still Need To Come Together

Clearly, you’re not going to wake up tomorrow and find yourself managing an entirely autonomous fleet. We’re still learning about gaps in the technology’s capabilities – how it performs in closed-road tests is very different from real world situations with other traffic controlled by oh-so-unpredictable humans. There are plenty of legislative and regulative matters to untangle, covering everything from where autonomous vehicles can be used to whose fault it is when there’s an accident.

Australia has its own challenges, too. It’s a big place with wild variations in driving conditions. Fleet managers already use GPS fleet tracking and other systems to communicate with drivers when a vehicle is travelling through areas with poor network reception. That importance will only grow as we introduce vehicles that depend on mobile communication to function.

There’s also the people factor. The transport industry has an ageing driver population but the arrival of autonomous vehicles won’t be perfectly timed to match the retirement of every truckie. How the industry manages this transition will be crucial.

A Journey Of Many Steps

It’s also important not to think of the move to driverless vehicles as a switch that gets flicked. We’re moving along a continuum that will first see an increasing amount of automation that supports the driver, followed by automation with humans ready to intervene and finally fully driverless vehicles. 

The challenge for fleet managers is knowing when it’s time to take the next step. Go too early and you risk over-capitalising on an emerging technology that may be surpassed by the next amazing (and cheaper) development. Hesitate and your competitors reap the efficiency and productivity gains offered by increased automation.

It’s important to understand the Australian market when making these decisions. With that in mind it’s worth looking at the current landscape.

Government Considers A Driverless World

Darren Chester, the federal Minister for Infrastructure and Transport, called for a parliamentary enquiry into social issues relating to driverless, land-based vehicles late last year. The Australian government is currently holding public hearings around the country until May, with Committee Chair, Michelle Landry saying “it is time to consider not just the technological developments but more importantly the social issues that will impact all Australians in the near future”.

As it examines safety, security, regulations and accessibility, along with the wider social impact of driverless vehicles, it’s mulling over such options as a dedicated third lane on highways to allow drivers to get used to sharing the road.

Moving From Talk To Action

As this unfolds, autonomous vehicle tests are continuing in Australia. The National Transport Commission is expected to release a national guideline for automated vehicles later this year and many states are already introducing legislation or otherwise working to support tests.

The Western Australian government and the City of South Perth launched a driverless bus trial in August last year. Carrying up to 11 passengers and driving at 25 kilometres per hour, the bus has so far driven 1000km over 357 trips. A survey examining the public’s opinion of the technology found that half of the people supported it. 

The South Australian government recently partnered with Adelaide Airport in a $US2.8 million trial of a driverless electric shuttle to move passengers around the terminal and long-term car park. If successful, it will replace the current diesel shuttle service. Flinders University is conducting a similar trial around one of its campuses, with plans to extend it to another campus and local transport hubs.

It’s clear that many states want to position themselves as leaders in this field. These tests, along with the federal government’s impending decisions about how autonomous vehicles will operate in Australia, show that even if fully autonomous vehicles are still some distance in the future, it’s a horizon we’re definitely approaching. Now’s the time to start planning what will happen when you get there.

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