Autonomous vehicle technology will take its first tentative steps into Australia in just a few months, with news this week that a test of driverless cars will soon kick off in South Australia.
Techies and traffic safety campaigners have been forced to look on from distant sidelines as increasingly advanced self-driving cars take to public roads in Europe and the US, raising questions over just how far the futuristic vehicles are from appearing in Australia.
This week, independent road research agency ARRB has announced that from November, its Australian Driverless Vehicle Initiative will begin testing autonomous driving systems on a number of closed courses.
The tests, which will be operated in partnership with the South Australian government, Bosch, Volvo and Telstra, are to be carried out on sections of the Southern Expressway, Adelaide Airport, and at Tonsley Innovation Park.
“ARRB will establish how driverless technology needs to be manufactured and introduced for uniquely Australian driving behaviour, our climate and road conditions, including what this means for Australia’s national road infrastructure, markings, surfaces and roadside signage,” said ARRB managing director Gerald Waldon.
Bosch and Volvo have both played extensive roles in developing autonomous driving systems in Europe, but this latest program will mark a first for Australia.
Mark Jackman, Robert Bosch Australia’s regional president for vehicle safety systems, said the company expects the trial to represent “a major step forward in advancing Bosch automated driving technologies in Australia”.
Volvo Car Australia managing director Kevin McCann echoed Jackman’s sentiments, highlighting Volvo’s part in developing autonomous technologies in recent years.
“At Volvo we believe autonomous drive will lead to significant consumer and societal benefits, including improved traffic safety, improved fuel economy, reduced congestion, and the opportunity for improved infrastructure planning. We are delighted to be involved with the ARRB demonstration event in South Australia, where we believe Volvo Car Australia can make a positive and significant contribution,” McCann said.
Telstra’s involvement will focus on system communications, utilising its national mobile and data network to “help make autonomous vehicle technology a reality in Australia”.
Waldon says that a key component of the trial will be in exposing the Australian public to the capabilities of driverless vehicle technology, which he believes could begin to appear on open public roads here over the next three to five years.
That may prove an ambitious goal, however, with legislation in most states requiring vehicles to be driven directly by a human operator.
Change could be on the horizon, though, and South Australia has already taken steps to allow driverless vehicles onto public roads, with new laws announced in February to make the systems legal in the state.
South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill said the trial "presents a fantastic opportunity for South Australia to take a lead nationally and internationally in the development of this new technology and open up new opportunities for our economy".
Weatherill said that research shows the driverless vehicle industry will be worth more than $90 billion internationally by 2030, “so we want to encourage other global businesses to come to South Australia to develop and test their technologies”.
The driverless vehicle trials will coincide with a Driverless Vehicle Conference to be held in in Adelaide from 5-6 November.