Ben Coogan

“Back to the Future: Part II” did not quite predict this… Driverless cars in Australia

Ben Coogan

14 December 2015

Legislation Updates Patents Uncategorized

Like a lot of you, I remember going to see Robert Zemeckis‘ “Back to the Future: Part II” at the movies with a couple of mates from school in December 1989.

In that movie, October 21, 2015 was the day that Marty McFly and Doc Brown travelled to the future in their DeLorean time machine.  While the writers had a humorous guess as to what might occur in 2015, there are a number of things that never came into fruition such as self-tying shoe laces, a justice system without lawyers (heaven forbid), the movie Jaws 19 (thankfully) and flying cars.

With the “Back to the Future Day” having only recently passed us, it seems like a good idea that we all look another 25 years into the future to see what our roads are going to be like.

Believe it or not, the South Australian Government has done just that by introducing to Parliament on 23 September 2015, the Motor Vehicles (Trials of Automotive Technologies) Amendment Bill 2015.  The Bill was received in Legislative Council and read for the first time on 2 December 2015 (see link here).  It is aimed at the trials of driverless cars in South Australia.

It is forward thinking and smart.

If I had to predict the future, my guess is that in 20-30 years driverless cars (also known as autonomous vehicles) will be a common sight on the roads in Australia.

Just think about it, modern cruise control (also known as a speedostat or tempomat) was invented in 1948 by mechanical engineer, Ralph Teetor.  Apparently, his invention grew from the frustration of riding in a car driven by his lawyer, who kept speeding up and slowing down as he talked.

Lane control technology, where two functions are automated (steering and acceleration), has been around for a number of years.

There are now other driving functions where steering, acceleration and braking are fully automated so that the driver can safely engage in other activities (reverse parking assist, also known as self-parking, is but one example).

Mining companies have been using driverless trucks within the confines of mine sites for a number of years, including in Australia.

It is the next level above that I am talking about.  The South Australian Government considers that the trials will put South Australia on the map for autonomous vehicle technology in a global way.

The current South Australian Bill lacks detail, but some of the issues that have been identified in are as follows:

  • The Transport Minister provides details of an authorisation notice which contains:
    • The location of the trial;
    • Period of trial;
    • The scope of the trial such as type of vehicle used, weather conditions, type of traffic conditions;
    • The name of the person authorised to undertake the simulation of traffic.
  • The relevant vehicle be exempt from compulsory third party vehicle insurance (CTP) but must have appropriate public liability insurance.
  • The Transport Minister can revoke or suspend the authorisation notice at any time.
  • It is a criminal offence to interfere with or hinder the trial (for instance those who might be against automotive vehicles such as truck drivers etc).  The maximum penalty for interfering with the trial is $10,000.
  • The trial provider has to prepare two reports on the trial, one which will be public and one which is a private and confidential report.

Technology and automotive companies such as Google, Tesla Motors, Audi and Mercedes Benz have been testing driverless technology over the past few years.

Volvo tested a modified driverless XC90 on 6 November 2015 by ferrying passengers at speeds up to 70 km/h during a series of demonstration runs at the Conference on Driverless Technology in Adelaide.  The route included several turns which showed the vehicle’s ability to negotiate bends, slow down and accelerate.  The trial was organised by ARRB (Australian Road Research Board) group.

Volvo has predicted that cars could be ready for public use on Australian roads by 2020.  See the report here.

In terms of timing, Volvo’s prediction puts driverless cars ahead of my prediction.  There will need to be a lot of policy considerations and legislative changes before society is ready for the technology.  But it will happen.

I just hope the first driverless car I own has the same shape as a DeLorean, but that its manufacturer has less misfortune than the DeLorean Motor Company.