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Speech to the 2018 Institute of Public Works Conference: Emerging Technologies in Public Infrastructure

In September 2015, the Prime Minister appointed me as a Minister in the transport and infrastructure portfolio.

Having worked in the telecommunications and broadband sector since the mid-nineties, I was used to a space where technology is moving very quickly

I expected to find, by contrast, that transport and infrastructure was a backwater.

I could not have been more wrong. As the title of your Conference today acknowledges, a great wave of technological change is sweeping across this space.

In my opening remarks today I want to advance three propositions:

first, that new technologies offer very big benefits in the provision of public infrastructure; secondly, that infrastructure and transport is a very fragmented sector with multiple players, private and public – and this creates real challenges for how we introduce such new technologies; and thirdly, that the Turnbull Government is working to set directions which help overcome these challenges – so we can get new technologies to work.

New technologies offer big benefits

Let’s turn firstly to some examples of the way that technological change can bring big benefits in the provision of public infrastructure.

Consider first the benefits from using information technology to make motorways work more efficiently, reducing congestion and improving the effective capacity of the motorway – using so called managed motorway technology, which is an example of Intelligent Transport Systems (ITS).

The implementation of ITS on road networks optimises traffic flow, enhances the management of road space and creates extra capacity within the existing footprint, with little impact on the surrounding environment and minimal disruption to the public.

ITS also helps to build resilience into the network by controlling traffic flow and volumes at critical bottlenecks. Smart roads use a freeway or lane-use management system with variable speed signs, overhead lane-use signs and ramp metering to help keep traffic moving as safely and efficiently as possible. This technology can provide much greater net benefit than building new lanes – which tends to be our default response.

The Turnbull Government is supporting a wide range of managed motorway projects around Australia, such as the $1 billion Monash Freeway project.  This project will reduce travel times by around 10 per cent and improve emergency response times by around 20 per cent. Similarly, the $250 million widening of the Tullamarine Freeway - with an 80 per cent Commonwealth contribution - includes a fully integrated freeway management system (FMS) which will cut travel times for peak hour commuters on the corridor by around 15 minutes. The FMS includes lane-use management, ramp metering on all entry ramps, variable message signs, and an automated incident detection system.

Or consider secondly the way that better data can help us allocate public investment in infrastructure more effectively.

Australia’s population is set to increase by 30 per cent over the next 20 years and almost double over the next 70 years[1], meaning it is important that we make wise infrastructure investment decisions—so our roads, rail, ports and other infrastructure best serve Australia’s people and businesses.

But making these wise decisions can be challenging. What roads require upgrades? Where are the bottlenecks? Are our trucks using the roads designed for them?

Technology can help provide the answer to these questions.

Smart phones for example contain sensors that can – when authorised by their users to do so – collect data on the user’s position, speed, commuting patterns, where they cluster at different times of the day and the environmental conditions around them.[2]

A third benefit is the way that technology can improve the safety of our transport infrastructure.

Given more than 90 per cent of accidents are due to human error, the safety benefits of technology and automation are potentially profound. The human costs of course are enormous. Over 1,200 Australians a year die in road crashes and a great many more are seriously injured.[3]

The economic cost is also very significant, with the annual cost of road crashes to the economy estimated at $29.7 billion.[4]

Last week I had the chance to visit the ITS America Conference in Detroit. There I was able to observe a trial being conducted by General Motors and the Michigan Department of Transportation. Vehicle to Infrastructure or V2I technology installed in the traffic light sends warning signals to a vehicle as it approaches a red light. As I experienced, when the driver failed to slow the vehicle when approaching the red light, there was a loud audio warning and the seats began to rumble.

The Michigan Department of Transport indicated that they are considering routinely installing this equipment as it only adds 10 per cent to the cost of traffic lights. The benefits of investing in such networked communications between vehicles and the road infrastructure they travel on are potentially many times the costs.

We are also seeing some exciting technology being developed in Australia.

The Government has committed $2.25 million in funding towards a $6.5 million trial of technology developed by Canberra company, Seeing Machines. The study - which includes fleets such as Finemores – uses advanced software to provide real time safety warnings to drivers, based on data from cameras mounted in the vehicle, trained on both the driver and on the road ahead. The study is an important step towards realising the benefits that technology will have on road safety. 

Challenges in introducing new technologies

It is very clear, then, that new technology offers great promise - and the prospect of transport services which are safer, more convenient and more inclusive than those currently available.

However, there are some significant challenges when it comes to adopting the new technology.  Let me mention some of them. 

Uncertainty over the pace and scale of change

Uncertainty over the pace and scale of change makes it difficult for governments at all levels to plan in a comprehensive way.

As anybody who has read any projections of what's going to happen with automated vehicles will know, there are widely divergent views.

Some say that we’re only a few short years away from consumers purchasing driverless vehicles capable of taking on the full driving task. Others say it's going to be a much more staged, managed evolution.

No one knows for sure how quickly consumers will take up new technology, whether the technology can be produced at an affordable price and how the technology will change the way that people travel.

Governments have to tread carefully when responding to new technologies. If we move too far ahead of technology we might invest in the wrong areas, or be disrupted by some new innovation that we didn't expect. If we move too slowly, we risk missing out on the benefits of being an early adopter.

In my view there are some likely areas where we will see automated vehicle technology in operation early on. We are starting to see deployment of robo‑taxi systems operating in and around CBDs where speeds are relatively low. We are also seeing automated buses operating on fixed routes in campus environments such as universities and hospitals. But I think it is going to be a long time before we see automated vehicles able to operate on dirt roads in remote Australia.

In the presentations I have received from companies working on automated vehicles, this is not a case which seems to be a priority.

Fragmentation of the infrastructure and transport sector

A third factor that I think is very significant is the fragmented ownership and control of our infrastructure. If you think about a privately owned airline, the economic incentive to adopt a new technology is very strong. Consider the way that Qantas and other airlines have been taking up the Boeing 787 Dreamliner. One of the reasons clearly is much better fuel efficiency. A privately owned airline has a very strong economic incentive to search out money saving new technology.

Infrastructure and transport is a very fragmented sector with multiple players, private and public. Governments typically own and operate the roads, but the cars and trucks which run on them are owned by private individuals or businesses.

If a particular investment will deliver safety benefits or reduced travel times, who should make that investment?

Often the owner of the asset is not the one which is going to capture the benefits – so their incentive to invest is not particularly strong.

The Productivity Commission in their inquiry into Public Infrastructure in 2014 made the point that there is a fundamental need for a comprehensive overhaul of the poor processes currently used in the development and assessment of infrastructure investments particularly.[5]

One of the things that we're seeking to do at the Federal Government level is provide more of our infrastructure investment in the form of equity investment, including through setting up a company. A good example is our $5.3 billion equity investment in Western Sydney Airport (WSA).

WSA Co was established as a Commonwealth-owned company on 7 August 2017, under the Corporations Act 2001, to develop WSA. WSA Co will operate at an arm’s length from the Government with an independent Chair and Board of Directors.

We’ve done that specifically, because we want the board and management team to take a commercial approach. For example, how can we can use the latest technology to make the customer experience better and to have the highest standards of security in a way that is less obtrusive and less visible for the passenger?

How do we agree on standards?

A fourth challenge to mention is agreeing on standards. This is critical to the takeup of a new technology – as the story of failed technologies like the 8 track cartridge or the Beta video recorder reminds us.

With new technologies like automated vehicles and electric vehicles, we do not yet have agreed standards – for the line markings an automated vehicle might need or the type of plug to use in charging stations.

That in turn can hold back investment.

The issue is compounded in a small market like Australia.

Global manufacturers will not tailor products to meet our needs – instead we are an adopter of global standards.

For example, Australia has adopted the standards for mobile phone and digital television communications technology.

Given that technology will not be designed specifically for the Australian market, how does Government provide the right signal to the market to encourage technology to market without moving ahead of the market and creating standards that might be damaging to consumer choice and raise costs.

Our work to help overcome these challenges

Let me now turn to speak about some of the work of the Turnbull Government to overcome these challenges – so that we can put technology to work in the provision of better public infrastructure.

National Infrastructure Data Collection and Dissemination Plan

Over a year ago I announced that we would commence work to develop a National Infrastructure Data Collection and Dissemination Plan.  Today I am very pleased to officially release this plan.

The plan has been developed by a Steering Group, whose members include infrastructure and transport experts from across the public sector, industry and academia

The Data Plan sets out a series of priority projects to improve the way infrastructure data is collected, shared and used to guide decision-making.

One example is a project using GPS data shared by freight operators to better understand where congestion is impacting freight movements. This project is being led by The Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics (BITRE) within my Department.

BITRE has now commenced collecting GPS-based vehicle movement data, sourced from a number of freight service providers, and over the course of 2018 is looking to expand this collection to include 20–30 representative road freight operators.

As part of the Data Plan, my Department has also launched an interactive Freight Performance Dashboard that for the first time brings together all transport modes and metrics for activity, cost and time.

This project makes existing freight data more accessible for the freight industry, government decision-makers and the public.

Another project uses in-car GPS data to better assess road travel time performance.

We expect to add further projects – with a common theme of using data to underpin the more efficient use of existing infrastructure—and more efficient investment in new infrastructure.

The Data Plan project is part of the Turnbull Government's reform agenda in infrastructure, with the aim of having better data to guide decision making.

The Data Plan aligns with whole-of-government initiatives aimed at improving public data sharing and accessibility[6] and informs other Government initiatives, such as the development of a National Freight and Supply Chain Strategy and preparedness for Transport Technology Futures.[7]

Co-ordinated national plan for the arrival of automated vehicles

Another way in which we are working to support the implementation of new technology is through the development of a co-ordinated national plan for the arrival of automated vehicles.

There are work streams underway across Commonwealth, state and territory governments to tackle a wide range of issues arising from the arrival of automated vehicles. 

The National Transport Commission, under the oversight of Commonwealth, State and Territories Transport Ministers, is looking at the necessary changes to the regulatory framework to support the uptake of automated vehicles. This includes clarifying the regulatory concept of control in the road rules for different levels of driving automation.

We are working to develop a safety assurance system (SAS) for higher level automated vehicles during early commercial deployment – that is, an end-to-end regulatory system that would be used to ensure that automated vehicles can be safely deployed and operated on public roads at all levels of automation.

There is work underway to deal with a range of legal and insurance issues – since today we have a set of rules which assume that there is a human driver in charge of the vehicle, but tomorrow that will not be a valid assumption when fully automated vehicles are operational. 

Then there is the very important work of identifying physical and digital infrastructure needs.  What will street markings need to look like?  Will road signs need to change? 

Investing in required national infrastructure

The third strand of activity is investment and regulatory mandates to underpin the delivery of new technology.

Let me mention specifically our work on enhanced communications infrastructure which will help support connected and automated vehicles.

We are investing $224.9 million for better global positioning systems including, $160.9 million for a Satellite-Based Augmentation System (SBAS) to improve the reliability and the accuracy of positioning data from five metres to 10 centimetres­­.

We are also investing $64 million in the National Positioning Infrastructure Capability (NPIC) to improve GPS to an accuracy as precise as 3cm in areas of Australia with access to mobile coverage.

We are allocating spectrum for 5G mobile phone services; as was trialed recently on the Gold Coast as part of the Commonwealth Games.

The Turnbull Government has made major investments in automated vehicle research including a $55 million ten‑year commitment to the iMOVE Cooperative Research Centre (CRC). This includes 44 industry, academic and government participants undertaking research relating to smart transport and infrastructure, enhanced personal mobility and end-to-end freight solutions.

Conclusion

Let me conclude as I began – with the observation that technology is transforming transport and infrastructure.

There are some challenges in supporting the introduction of that new technology.

That is why we are working in selected areas to respond to those challenges – so as to facilitate the private sector funding the uptake of such technology.

I know that is one of the reasons why you're talking about technology for public infrastructure at this Conference today. I am pleased to be here to be part of that and I wish you the very best for productive discussions over the next two days.

 

[1] Series B projections, 2018 = 25,201,317 people, 2038 = 33,178,476 people, 2088 population =49,954,946 people – see http://stat.data.abs.gov.au/Index.aspx?Queryid=294#

[2] http://readinessguide.smartcitiescouncil.com/article/introduction-smart-cities?page=0%2C1

[3] In 2017 there were 1,226 deaths in road crashes in Australia.

[4] Australian Automobile Association 2017, Cost of Road Trauma in Australia.

 

[5] https://www.pc.gov.au/inquiries/completed/infrastructure/report

[6] For example, the National Innovation and Science Agenda commits agencies to make non-sensitive data public.

[7] https://infrastructure.gov.au/transport/freight/national-strategy.aspx