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Where we’re going, we will need road safety: Commonwealth gets into future transport

The federal government has taken a deliberate step into the realm of driverless cars and mobility-as-a-service apps with the establishment of an Office of Future Transport Technologies in the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Cities.

Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack said his department’s newest appendage, funded with $9.7 million, would “help prepare for the pending arrival of automated vehicles and other transport innovations” and lay the groundwork for the Commonwealth to assume a “strategic leadership role” in the policy area, where state governments will ultimately be the main authorities.

He said the office would “coordinate more cohesively with other governments and agencies to implement future transport technologies in Australia more successfully and responsibly” in a statement following a speech to members of Roads Australia, which counts “road agencies, major contractors and consultants, motoring clubs, service providors, and other relevant industry groups” among its constituents.

McCormack said the Morrison government wanted to play a role in discussions about regulating vehicles that drive themselves before they became available to Australian consumers. The looming technological shift could deliver economic and road-safety benefits, but would require collaboration between Australian governments and industry on policy development, regulation and infrastructure decisions.

“I expect the office to collaborate across governments to ensure automated vehicles are safe, to consider future infrastructure needs…”

“Getting Australians home sooner and safer is a core focus of our government and the emergence of automated vehicles represents a significant opportunity to realise safety and productivity benefits while supporting Australian industry and innovation,” McCormack said.

“The Australian future transport and mobility industry is expected generate more than $16 billion in revenue by 2025. While representing an emerging business opportunity for the national economy, these technologies also have great potential to reduce the $27 billion cost of road crashes in Australia each year.

“These advances can also help to reduce the significant social impacts that road deaths and injuries have on families and the wider community.”

Near-crashes are forgotten, not measured

It might turn out to be true that significantly less people would be killed or injured on the roads if everyone took a back seat to suitably advanced artificial intelligence, but it also might not. Peter Hancock, a professor from Florida with just the right blend of expertise, has argued it’s actually harder to tell than we might think at first, because there is not very much hard data about how many near-crashes human drivers avoid, and because self-driving vehicles are rarely tested in the kinds of unexpected, extreme or unusual situations where human experience comes to the fore.

The minister noted that his hosts at Roads Australia strongly favoured the idea that new technology could make roads safer and that self-driving vehicles in particular would be “game-changers” in this regard, assuming they are introduced safely.

The Commonwealth’s public servants are getting more deeply involved in the policy area “to ensure these new technologies are deployed in a manner which improves safety, productivity, accessibility and liveability for Australians in both urban and regional areas” according to McCormack.

“The establishment of an Office of Future Transport Technologies within my department will enable the Australian government to work with industry and state and territory governments to ensure Australia is ready for the challenges and opportunities ahead,” he said.

“I expect the office to collaborate across governments to ensure automated vehicles are safe, to consider future infrastructure needs, to make sure cyber security safeguards are in place, and to support Australian businesses in taking advantage of new commercial opportunities.

“This new Australian Government $9.7 million investment will ensure the regulatory settings are workable and nationally consistent, that they fit with emerging United Nations regulatory developments and are consistent with related Commonwealth policies and laws; including those relating to privacy and data use.

“While some of this work has already started, we will see the Office of Future Transport Technologies ramping up over the next few months to coordinate Australia’s responses to the challenges ahead.”

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The Mandarin

The Mandarin staff journalists.