It has been observed that an average car spends only around 5% of its life actually being driven. For most of rest of the time it sits unused parked in a driveway, on the roadside or in a parking station. On this basis, the introduction of automated vehicles could reduce the number of cars needed to meet existing transport demand by as much as 95%.

Driverless vehicles also hold out the prospect of freeing up driver time for more productive use, improving transport efficiency by optimising routes according to time of day and road conditions, lowering costs and eliminating or reducing accidents.

Driverless vehicles will have a major impact on land use including the design of our cities, car ownership and many features of daily life.

Challenges to overcome

Much of the technology necessary to make and use driverless cars exists today but making the transition from present day vehicles presents a significant challenge. Safe automated vehicles need to be built, sold and licensed for road use. Standards need to be set for communication between vehicles and between vehicles and road infrastructure. New rules need to be written to govern the interaction between automated vehicles and driver driven vehicles during the transition period. There are also difficult issues of risk allocation and data privacy.

Call for submissions

The Australian National Transport Commission (NTC) is an independent statutory body with responsibility for improving the productivity, safety and environmental performance of Australia’s “road, rail and intermodal transport systems”. In May this year it produced a discussion paper “Regulatory options for automated vehicles“. Submissions officially closed on 4 July 2016 and are now being considered.

Given the very significant potential impact of the issues addressed and in anticipation of the views and analysis of the NTC, we have prepared an overview of the themes emerging from the submissions received. The overview is only intended to be an accessible summary reflecting one perspective of the key issues. Please consult individual submissions before reaching a view about the comments provided by any submitter.

General observations from submissions

The overarching concerns raised in the submissions are safety and the collection and use of data during trials and for incidents. Submissions are strongly supportive of the development of national guidelines and support government assurance of vehicle safety through a national safety assurance framework. A majority of submitters is not in support of reliance on industry led development of standards.

As part of the safety concern, there seemed to be a strong dissent against industry administration of modifications. A number of submissions raised the issue of aftermarket modifications, which create a potential risk to drivers and other road users, given the unfamiliarity of the technology at this stage.

There is an expectation that data collected by automated vehicles will be accessible for sharing suggesting a need to put in place a scheme to enable sharing that might otherwise be prevented by privacy legislation. Effective data sharing may have implications for privacy, insurance, and determining liability.

On questions of the proper definition of a driver and who should be responsible for any mishap, there were a diverse range of views perhaps best summed up as “too early to tell”.

Industry estimates on how long it will take for automated vehicles to dominate the roads vary from 10 to 25 years. Considering that submitters overwhelmingly seek support for the transition via national guidelines perhaps a key factor may be the quality and speed of the federal government response to these interesting issues.

We hope our overview is of interest.