Revised regulations could allow autonomous vehicles on California roads without a human minder in the driver seat next year, but it could be five or six years before we see similar tests on local roads.
Proposed changes to the California DMV Driverless Testing and Deployment Regulations remove the need for “physical control by a natural person sitting in the vehicle’s driver’s seat” during tests. The revisions only ask for someone “supervising the autonomous technology's performance of the dynamic driving task", which means Californians could see cars with an empty driver’s seat on public roads as early as next year.
Manufacturers will need to renew their licence every two years to keep testing in Cali. Although self-driving test vehicles will be allowed to carry civilians, companies won’t be able to charge passengers for the privilege.
It could be a while before we're faced with anything similar in Australia, though. Victorian Minister for Roads and Transport, Luke Donnellan, told CarAdvice the southern state was preparing for more technologically-advanced autonomous trials, but it could be a while before they arrive.
“In terms of when it might happen, I’m cautious about making a prediction on that, but yes, that is the technology that is coming our way, and we will need to look at how we can accommodate the testing for that,” Minister Donnellan said. “As for when it will happen? It might be five or six years away, but that’s very much what we’re preparing ourselves for."
"At a state government level, we’re working with the National Transport Commission (NTC) to develop a standardised set of rules for testing autonomous capacity on our roads," he added.
There are Level 2 self-driving tests taking place on the Eastlink - Tullamarine - CityLink corridor in Melbourne at the moment, focused on better understanding how semi-autonomous driver assist systems interact with current infrastructure.
South Australia has also been active in encouraging autonomous testing. Legislation unveiled in March last year made it the first state to allow driverless trials on the public highway, and a $10 million funding boost for testing, research and development programs was announced seven months later.
Although the South Australian legislation doesn't specify any requirement for a 'driver' behind the wheel, the details of each test proposal are evaluated to make sure companies aren't putting the public at risk. The process is similar in Victoria, where Minister Donnellan said proposals are considered on a case-by-case basis.
Programs like those in South Australia and Victoria are, according to the Australian Driverless Vehicle Initiative, crucial for advancing development of autonomous technology Down Under. The organisation says 2016 - 2o19 is the time for "field investigations of driverless vehicles", before the technology arrives in mass-produced vehicles.
“The timeline, or time horizon, for learning very quickly what this technology is, how it can be applied to Australia, is in the next few years,” Rita Excell, Executive Director of the ADVI Centre of Excellence, told CarAdvice.
“By 2020 we’ve got most vehicle manufacturers saying they’re going to be producing cars that don’t have a steering wheel, their computers do most of the driving... Now is really the time to learn by doing and understanding what is the best opportunity for Australia and Australian driving conditions – [understanding] what sort of technology will suit Australia best.”
Beyond state regulations, the National Transport Commission is inching toward national rules surrounding autonomous vehicles. The body is currently seeking public feedback on the possibility of adapting existing road laws to accommodate self-driving cars and more clearly state who is legally responsible for their operation.
"The introduction of more automated vehicles will see elements of the driving task shift away from the human driver to the automated driving system but our laws currently don’t recognise these systems," said NTC Chief Executive, Paul Retter.
"We need to ensure that relevant driving laws apply to automated vehicles when the automated driving system – rather than the human driver – is operating the vehicle."
Why the focus on self-driving? First up, autonomous cars have the potential to mobilise large sections of the population that would otherwise struggle to get around. But – and this is a hard thing for most petrolheads, myself included, to admit – computers are also expected to reach a point, however distant, where they're simply better drivers than humans.
Globally, there were 1.2 million people killed on the road in 2013. A large chunk of those accidents were preventable, too – Waymo says 94 per cent of US road accidents are caused by human error. When the cars and infrastructure are (finally) ready, self-driving technology has the potential to slash the road toll by removing the risk of human-caused crashes.
Australian regulators have clearly recognised that, and it's a matter of when (not if) self-driving vehicles arrive on our roads.