Mon, 08 Aug 2016 - 08:01
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How will driverless cars change our road system? How should government respond?

With technology transforming cars at an increasing rate, governments face some important questions about how to respond.

Last week for example Telstra Chief Technology Officer Hugh Bradlow caused a stir with his prediction that by 2030 all cars could be driverless.

In fact as his presentation makes clear, while he thinks that may be technically possible, he argues that there are many other factors which will affect what actually happens – including consumer take-up, and regulation.

Certainly there is certainly a huge amount of investment and research in this space. I got an insight into some of this work earlier this year when I had the chance to ride in a Google driverless car in California.

Such a vehicle, controlled by an on-board computer, using technology such as sensors to detect and respond to other vehicles, traffic lights and lane markings, is relatively straightforward to think about.

In one sense it is not too different to a car of today – except that the computer is carrying out the functions the human driver performs today.

Once a significant proportion of vehicles are autonomous, though, we can expect some big changes on our roads.

Many of us may come to see a car not as something we own, but as something owned by a business which provides us services when we need it. We will summon an autonomous vehicle using our smart phone; it will turn up and take us to our destination; and then it will go somewhere else.

Such a world could mean many fewer cars – but those cars will be on the road almost all the time, much like today’s taxis.

It could also mean much less road capacity used up by parked cars – and used up by drivers (especially in city centres) who have arrived at their destination but are now circling looking for somewhere to park.

Autonomous vehicles will be safer; there will be many fewer accidents. That is good for a host of obvious reasons; one perhaps less obvious reason is that around a quarter of congestion on our road systems today is estimated to be caused by accidents.

But the really big opportunity comes when autonomous vehicles operate as part of an integrated network – using a combination of high bandwidth radio communications, central processing capability, and sophisticated algorithms to optimise the route the vehicle takes, and the most efficient use of the road network.

Already we know that by using ‘intelligent transport systems’ technology we can get more capacity on an existing freeway. For example, the flow of new traffic onto the freeway can be controlled by installing traffic lights at the on ramps, linked to an algorithm driven by data about existing traffic flows on the freeway.

But if this communication happens instantly – and goes directly to the onboard computer operating each autonomous vehicle – then the benefits will be even greater.

For example, autonomous vehicles will be able to travel very closely together, in convoy – relying on technology to brake safely if the first vehicle detects a problem.

Today, if you look at a photograph of a freeway taken from above, you see that only around ten to fifteen per cent of the road surface is occupied by vehicles; the gaps are a function of the distance drivers need to leave to take account of human reaction times.

Hence some experts argue that the coming changes in technology may well make it possible to use our roads considerably more efficiently - which suggests we may need less growth in road capacity than is currently assumed.

Others make a different prediction however - that the ease of use of automated vehicles means that many more journeys will be made than we presently expect.

As governments determine transport policy nationally and in our big cities, we need to respond to these trends in technology - while recognising that much remains uncertain about how these trends will play out.

Once genuinely autonomous vehicles are on sale, how long will it take for them to be widely used? Some say ten to fifteen years, some say less, others say it could be considerably longer.

Are there steps government should take - or should we just get out of the way and let the market operate?

Perhaps the revolution in telecommunications offers some pointers. In 1990 services were provided by a government owned monopoly, Telecom Australia, and virtually nobody owned mobile phones.

Following changes to the regulatory framework, companies like Telstra, Optus and Vodafone worked to drive sales of mobile phones - and deliver multiple upgrades of technology (AMPS to GSM to CMDA to 3G and now 4G or LTE.)

Today there are over 34 million mobile services in operation, the majority of Australians own sophisticated smartphones, and our lives have been transformed as a result.

Whether we see a similar transformation of our roads and the vehicles upon them will depend not just on technology - but on the regulatory framework at both federal and state level.

Autonomous vehicle technology offers the potential for profound social and economic benefits – but there are some complex public policy issues to work out along the way.