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Australia striving to become a global “testbed” for automated vehicles

By Aaron Stone

The arrival of automated vehicles (AV) on public roads is looming, and with it comes the potential to “revolutionise urban mobility.” Predicted benefits of this emerging technology include improved road safety, higher productivity, increased mobility for the ageing and those with a disability and environmental efficiencies.

Currently, legislation restricts the operation of vehicles in highly or fully automated driving mode on public roads. To prepare for the inevitable arrival of self-driving vehicles, advancements in key policy are required. It is critical the capability of AVs is tested in real-world conditions, interacting with other road users.

On 24 May 2017, Australia published guidelines for the use of AVs, following an intensive six-month joint effort between Austroads and the National Transport Commission (NTC). Austroads provides leading-edge road and transport research which inputs to policy development on the Australian road network and its associated infrastructure. NTC is an independent advisory body that imparts advice and national land transport reform proposals to the Australian government.

The output of the collaboration is a single and nationally-agreed set of guidelines. NTC Chief Executive Paul Retter says the guidelines are designed to be “flexible and easy for industry to use, to support trials across Australia.” NTC and Austroads have worked closely with “vehicle manufacturers, technology developers and federal, state and territory governments to ensure our approach to trials is nationally-consistent and reflects best practice,” says Retter. Australian states and territories are now able to implement the guidelines to oversee trials in their jurisdictions.

The Australian announcement follows an earlier federal policy for automated vehicles issued by the United States Department of Transportation, in September 2016. Similarly, the United States policy aims to “outline the path for safe testing and deployment of new auto technologies” in the region.

Guidelines apply to any individual, company or organisation who intends to run an automated vehicle trial on Australian roads. The standards clarify the expectations of these groups, and assist road transport agencies in the management of trials within individual territories or across borders. The guidelines also stipulate minimum safety standards. The NTC believes these will offer greater safety assurances to the general public, and increase awareness and acceptance of AVs.

With many Australians ready to embrace self-driving technology and its multiple benefits, it is hoped the legislation will encourage innovation and promote Australia as a “global testbed” for AV technology, while also supporting trialling organisations to deliver the highest possible safety levels during on road testing.

NTC considers the guidelines very accommodating with respect to trialling, however organisations wishing to run AV tests will require permits or exemptions from legislative obligations. The guidelines also require organisations entering AV trials to provide a clear scope of operations, guaranteeing trials are only run in “appropriate conditions.” An appropriate safety management plan to mitigate risks, and insurance to manage liability resulting from injury or damage caused by a trial is also mandatory. Companies are required to provide specific data from trials to road transport authorities, including details of any accidents, for further investigation.

The release of the guidelines marks the first stage in NTC’s ambitious roadmap to support the commercial deployment of AVs. A “phased reform program” was agreed in November 2016 by transport ministers with a view to allowing “conditionally” automated vehicles to operate safely and legally on Australian roads before 2020. Highly and fully automated vehicles are targeted from 2020 onwards. The NTC says that the new guidelines for automated vehicles will be reviewed every two years.