Humanless cars to hit Victoria's public streets in Victorian government proposal

Look no hands - Andrews government set to introduce trials of driverless cars. Photo: Christopher Goodney
Look no hands - Andrews government set to introduce trials of driverless cars. Photo: Christopher Goodney

Driverless vehicles in which the car is in complete control and a human does not need to be present will soon be on public roads under an Andrews government plan.

The state government will move to allow highly automated vehicles to be driven on public roads under organised trial conditions, in changes to the Road Safety Act due to be introduced in Parliament on Tuesday.

La Trobe and Melbourne University, Transurban and a swathe of luxury manufacturers have already been granted permission to trial autonomous vehicles on private land or on sealed off public land.

The proposed amendments - which will apply to companies and research groups - will allow trials on public roads, where they will mix with ordinary vehicles and public transport.

The Daniel Andrews government will introduce trials for driverless cars. Photo: AAP

The Daniel Andrews government will introduce trials for driverless cars. Photo: AAP

Minister for Roads and Road Safety Luke Donnellan said self-driving vehicles were an important step to reduce road trauma, with 90 per cent of crashes on Victoria's roads resulting from human error.

"Victoria is a world leader in automated vehicles and these important changes will allow Victorian researchers to run some of the safest and most ambitious trials being conducted anywhere in the world," Mr Donnellan said.

A party seeking a permit to run a trial will make an application to VicRoads and demonstrate that they meet stringent guidelines to ensure safety. 

Police will have the power to prosecute the permit holder if the vehicle does not comply with the conditions of their trial permit, even if they are not in the vehicle or near it. The trials would be monitored by VicRoads. 

The permit scheme will include requirements to ensure safety and appropriate insurance. 

VicRoads is already investigating how road networks and traffic signals would need to change to ensure the cars can use the network safely.

Current hurdles in the technology include difficulty identifying lane markings, lights, street signs, kangaroos and completing hook turns.

The state government's move comes after all Australian transport ministers endorsed new national enforcement guidelines addressing the question of driver liability at a Transport and Infrastructure Council meeting on Friday last week.

The guidelines state that a human driver is responsible for complying with road traffic laws when a vehicle has "conditional automation" engaged, which is when a car automatically controls speed, steering and monitors its surrounds, but requires a driver be inside it. 

"These guidelines provide clarity around who is in control of a vehicle at different levels of automation," said chief executive of the National Transport Commission Paul Rette. "They confirm that a human driver is responsible for the driving task when conditional automation is engaged."

The commission states that by 2020, vehicle registration data is likely to include fields relating to the level of driving automation, or relevant automated functions (such as traffic jam assist).

These guidelines are part of a broader road map of reform to support automated vehicles, with the Commission setting a target of an "end-to-end regulatory system" across the country by 2020.

Melbourne University Transport for Smart Cities Professor Majid Sarvi said the government's proposed changes would be "massive" for researchers and sent a clear signal to car manufacturers and technology businesses that "Victoria is open for business".

Professor Sarvi is leading an ambitious transport research project fitting thousands of sensors across a 1.2 square kilometre "test bed" in inner-Melbourne to study traffic planning, pedestrian flows, public transport efficiency and freight movements 

The project has already tested an autonomous bus on Drummond Street in Carlton, but the road was sealed off.

Professor Sarvi would be applying for a permit to operate these vehicles as soon as it becomes available to test how the technology integrated with other drivers and to see whether it could help passengers get to and from their closest public transport stop.

"A lot of people would like to do things in this space, to have on-road testing available would be amazing," he said.

- The Age