Freight vehicle automation closer than expected: experts

By: Anjali Behl

VTA1 marcus burke NTC project director compliance & technology Marcus Burke VTA1 marcus burke
VTA2 chris jones VicRoads senior vehicle safety engineer Chris Jones VTA2 chris jones
VTA3 peter anderson VTA CEO Peter Anderson VTA3 peter anderson
VTA4 anthony germanchev ARRB team leader freight & heavy vehicles Anthony Germanchev VTA4 anthony germanchev

NTC, VicRoads and ARRB Group discuss Australia’s vehicle automation future


While the National Transport Commission (NTC) feels that automated vehicle technology could be closer than earlier estimated, VicRoads believes that Australia is decades away from seeing this complete automation becoming common on the roads.

NTC project director compliance & technology Marcus Burke, VicRoads senior vehicle safety engineer Chris Jones and ARRB team leader freight & heavy vehicles Anthony Germanchev were part of a panel discussing the potential of autonomous vehicle technology in Australia during Victorian Transport Association (VTA’s) 2016 Freight Outlook seminar in Melbourne on Wednesday.

The session was moderated by VTA CEO Peter Anderson.

The panellists discussed the ongoing efforts and future plans to prepare Australia for the change that they say will "change the face of Australian transport forever".

Both NTC and VicRoads agree that automation will be phased in in levels in the "medium to longer term".

Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) International classifies automated vehicles based on the following levels:

  • Level 1: Basic automation where driver assistance is required. It uses automated vehicle features such as adaptive cruise control (ACC), parking assistance using automated steering, and lane-keeping assistance (LKA) Type II in any combination.
  • Level 2: Partial automation with driver required to detect objects and events and take control if the system fails to respond properly.
  • Level 3: Conditional automation with the vehicle operating independent of the driver in certain specific areas such as freeways), the driver can safely turn their attention away from driving tasks.
  • Level 4: High-level automation that requires a driver to take over only in severe cases and let their attention drift away for most parts of the journey.
  • Level 5: Complete automation where the vehicle does not require a driver.

The NTC believes although Level 5 automation is still decades away, it says Level 4 automation could become a reality sooner than expected.

VicRoads says the development of automated and connected vehicle technology provides an "exciting opportunity" to realise its potential to improve road safety and provide other benefits for Victoria.

Jones says a "reduction in manufacturing and service industries in Victoria is leading to increase in imported good, which is driving up freight demand.

"Although no one infrastructure project policy can ensure Melbourne can maintain its place as one of the most liveable cities in the world, we believe vehicle automation will play a key role in this area".

He says being able to shift a number of vehicles down a single road corridor by having them connected through wireless platooning systems and adaptive cruise control will enable increasing the capacity that one road is able to yield.

VicRoads states new mobility technologies and innovative last-mile solutions have benefits for not just the burgeoning e-commerce trade, but can also provide assistance in other areas such as aged communities and university campuses.

"Because they’re driverless, they can be operated quite cheaply," he says.

Although low levels of vehicle automation technologies such as electronic cruise control systems are already being used in smaller vehicles, freight transport is yet to see "big changes" in this area.

VicRoads is expecting a "mixed environment" for vehicles for some time, with deployment to begin in "small pockets".

Testing vehicles

"Driverless vehicles are just a continuation of connected vehicles," Germanchev says.

He says driverless vehicle trials have been going on for many decades, citing an example of a US-based trial in the 1960s where two small vehicles were linked with each other using telephone wires in a kind of early platooning test.

Burke highlights two recent Level 4 automation trials that reflect how far the technology has come from its early days.

A recent trial conducted by RAC Western Australia involved a fully electric bus drive on a section of a public road, successfully interacting with other vehicles and humans.

The "first of its kind" level 4 vehicle had a ‘chaperoning’ option, which allows driver intervention in the event of an emergency.

Anderson later pointed out the mention of the word ‘chaperone’ to Transport Workers Union (TWU) Tony Sheldon, who was also present at the event, calling it an "interesting concept in itself".

Burke also highlighted another US-based trial – involving shipment of 51,744 cans of beer by autonomous trucking company Otto.

The trial involved a retro-fitted vehicle travelling over 190 km without the help of a driver.

Otto has been testing its autonomous trucking technology using retro-fitted approach – arming current vehicles with self-driving abilities.

"I thought it was particularly relevant to mention here today because the delivery was of 50,000 beers", he said in reference to the seminar venue – the Carlton Brewhouse in Abbotsford.

Challenges ahead

Jones says such vehicle technologies also pose some risks for VicRoads such as misuse of automation, in addition to challenges such as road infrastructure planning and preparedness.

NTC says a preliminary analysis revealed up to 716 provisions of legal barriers that need to be dealt with before such technologies could be implemented on Australian roads.

Burke also highlights that the role of drivers and their legal obligations will change as a result.

He says the NTC is making efforts to plan for automated vehicle road map reform that can help adapt these technologies.

Plans and preparation

Following the consultation period, the NTC will submit its reform recommendations to the government.

Due to be released before the end of this month, the recommendations will include suggestions on how to regulate automated vehicles and focus on addressing "immediate regulatory barriers" and future problems.

In the next two-three years, a phase it refers to as ‘medium term’, the NTC is planning to develop national guidelines for trials to ensure a level of consistency in trials.

It also plans to implement national enforcement guidelines to ensure a consistent approach to the enforcement of the guidelines.

Additionally, Burke says the NTC intends to reform driver laws including redefining the definition of a driver and their obligations to meet with changing technologies.

In the longer term, it plans to adopt new Australian Design Rules (ADR) for automated vehicles in keeping with international standards.

This will enable Australia to maintain international consistency in vehicle standards and also support non-traditional vehicle designs through exemptions while the standards are being developed.

In an approach similar to the NTC, the ARRB Group says it is currently exploring the impacts and requirements of automated vehicle technologies in Australian through its Driverless Vehicle initiative.

One the research and analysis phase is over, the Group plans to present its recommendations to the ministers on ways to implement this technology on local roads. 

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