Platooning focus depends on automated vehicle probe

By: Rob McKay

NTC says it will give transport ministers a business case for looking further at vehicle automation

Platooning focus depends on automated vehicle probe
Steps towards an examination of platooning may be taken this year


Any National Transport Commission’s (NTC) action on platooning as a trucking productivity option appears to hinge on political backing for its examination of automated vehicles.

For it to do so would need ministerial approval and this is unlikely before the end of the year, sources indicate.

If agreed, and NTC CEO Paul Retter says there is a will towards looking into autonomous vehicle technology on roads, it could then become part of the NTC’s work program.

"Internationally there is growing interest in the use of technology to increasingly automate road vehicle functions," Retter tells ATN.

"Car manufacturers are trialling vehicles with embedded technology designed to allow them to undertake a range of functions autonomously.

"This includes the ability to park a vehicle using on board sensors or to drive along a road and respond in a timely and safe manner to other road users and infrastructure without human intervention.  

"A number of governments overseas are examining ways to ensure that vehicles using this technology are safe and effective.

"They are exploring policy and regulatory issues relating to liability, testing of autonomous vehicles and other related matters.

"Australia’s transport ministers have indicated they would like us to examine the costs and potential benefits related to undertaking some work in this emerging policy area.

"In the interim, NTC will continue to collaborate with overseas governments engaged in this type of work.

"NTC will report back to Ministers in due course with a ‘business case’ examining this issue in further detail."

The Australian Trucking Association (ATA) is keeping an eye on and developments and sees potential advantages.

"Trucks will require skilled drivers for many years to come, but advanced driver support systems and intelligent transport systems where vehicles communicate with each other have the potential to dramatically improve safety and reduce congestion," national government relations and communications manager Bill McKinley says.

"Some of these technologies, such as adaptive cruise control and lane keeping support, are already available and are proving their worth.

"Regulators and the industry will need to keep on top of technological developments as they occur and think through their safety and business implications.

"The 2014 Paccar and Dealer Technical and Maintenance Conference, to be held in Melbourne from Monday 27-Wednesday 29 October, will feature a session on advanced driver support systems and where the technology is going."

The NTC has flagged the concept in it its Cooperative Intelligent Transport Systems Final Policy Paper of last December.

Though the term ‘platooning’ is not mentioned as such, the term "automated vehicles" related to their use on roads is discussed along with commercial uses in other modes.

"Over recent years there has been an increasing focus internationally on the potential of fully automated vehicles," the policy paper states.

"Driverless trains have been in use for a number of years; mining companies in Australia and elsewhere are also beginning to use driverless trucks.

"These are however based in very controlled environments, quite different to the open road.

"However even on public roads companies in the United States are trialling autonomous vehicles and at least two US States have set up a process for the licensing of such vehicles."

Issues with realising the concept abound in industry and among policy-makers.

Observers of the truck manufacturing industry say that beyond working out what the testing regime here might look like, liability, fatigue issues, wildlife intrusion in the outback, motorist interface, refuelling practices, not to mention what actual sort of platooning might be envisaged, are just some of the things that will need debate and clarification.

Australian Road Rules state that "a driver must not drive a vehicle unless the driver has proper control of the vehicle", the NTC notes.

But the policy paper shows that such concerns are seen as an impetus for further NTC research for cars, trucks and trains, rather than an impediment.

"Stakeholders that the NTC has consulted with for this project have expressed very different views as to the likely timeframes for commercial deployment of automated vehicles; some consider that it will happen quite quickly while others believe that it is decades away," it says.

"There is undoubtedly growing research and development in this area and a variety of elements of the driving experience are becoming more supported and eventually more automated.

"The NTC believes that there would be benefit for Australia to examine the potential implications of more automated vehicles, moving towards full automation, on the Australian transport system."

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