Could an autonomous vehicle death happen on Australian roads too?

Could an autonomous vehicle death happen on Australian roads too?

Hours after an Uber self-driving car killed a pedestrian in Arizona, NSW launched its most comprehensive trial of automated vehicle tech on public roads

In the Sydney trials, the ADAS systems remain on. It is these systems – found in the road-ready vehicles from the eight manufacturers in the trial – and their response to urban and country roads in different conditions which are being tested.

“Safety is our highest priority and these trials are focused on testing the connected and automated vehicle technology to ensure we understand how it responds to the current road infrastructure in NSW,” Transurban said.

One hand on the wheel

As the dashcam footage from the Uber incident shows, only one test driver was in the vehicle at the time of the crash. They appear not to be watching the road at the time of the collision.

Making sure drivers are paying full attention to the road and are prepared to take control at any time, even when most of the time they don’t need to, is a significant dilemma for autonomous vehicles makers.

Constant hyper vigilance even though action is rarely required is a difficult state for everyday drivers to maintain.

In many cases – like Tesla and its Autopilot feature – users are simply advised to keep their hands on the wheel “just in case”. Many Tesla drivers decide otherwise.

This year’s Audi A8, which the company says is the world’s first Level 3 autonomous vehicle films the driver to make sure they are awake, and if not beeps and tugs on the seat belt.

In the NSW tests, Transurban says, “professional drivers will have at least one hand on the wheel at all times and will closely monitor the vehicles operation” in keeping with NSW law. There is also more than one test driver in the car – usually four – on every trial run.

The drivers come from Driving Solutions, a Sydney-based company which provides advanced driver training as well as drivers for events and movies.

The NSW trial vehicles were tested on a track ahead of the public road trial.
The NSW trial vehicles were tested on a track ahead of the public road trial.

“There’s a driver, designated as the driver, there’s a spotter in front seat to see anything that they miss because they’re concentrating on driving. There’s also a person documenting things in the back seat and another person using iPads in the back seat to track everything,” James Stewart, director of Driving Solutions based at Sydney Motorsport Park, told CIO Australia.

Transurban added that it had also developed a ‘Safety Management Plan’ that identifies and mitigates potential risks. The trials also comply with the Austroads / National Transport Commission’s guidelines for Trials of Automated Vehicles in Australia, the company said.

Down the road

Australian trials of automated vehicles are at an early stage. At present, at least on public roads, only low level ASAD features are being trialed, features that are already found in many vehicles.

But it won’t be long until vehicles with greater levels of autonomy are on the streets.

The same week as the NSW trials began, motoring and insurance company RAC launched an ‘on-demand driverless’ vehicle trial in Perth.

The Navya Autonom which will eventually be trialled on public roads in Perth
The Navya Autonom which will eventually be trialled on public roads in Perth

Initially the driverless Autonom vehicle, produced by French company Navya, will be tested off road, and later within a limited precinct. Stage three will see them on public roads in south Perth.

“The industry view is that we’re most likely talking years, rather than decades, before driverless vehicle technology is widespread,” said RAC executive general manager advocacy and members, Pat Walker.

“It’s an important step forward, both for WA and for driverless vehicle technology.”

State governments in SA, NSW, WA and Victoria have been keen to facilitate such trials, and have changed road laws to accommodate them.

It is important regulators properly scrutinise which companies are allowed to conduct such trials, says Associate Professor Hussein Dia from the Smart Cities Research Institute at Swinburne University of Technology.

“There will be questions raised about whether the autonomous vehicles should be tested on open roads. More importantly, the key question that regulators should be addressing is which companies should be allowed to test them in real-world environments,” he said.

“Not all self-driving software is at the same stage of development and readiness. There needs to be more scrutiny of the underlying AI systems before the autonomous vehicles are allowed on open roads,” Dia added.


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