By Darren Chester, Federal Minister for Infrastructure and Transport
Intelligent transport systems have come of age in recent years, and technology such as driverless cars – once the stuff of science fiction or fantasy – is having an increasingly important role to play in improving road safety, enhancing the liveability of cities and the increasing productivity of society.
A Cabinet Minister is rarely happy to take his hands off the wheel and not be in full control of the direction he’s heading – but the recent 23rd World Congress on Intelligent Transport Systems challenged that stereotype.
Amongst the myriad of cutting-edge transport technologies on show was the driverless car, and it was a unique experience to be able to buckle up and head off – safely and securely – without holding the steering wheel.
Road safety is a well-known passion of mine. The idea of driverless or highly automated vehicles where drivers don’t control every aspect of operation may sound like the complete opposite of our idea of safer driving and safer road systems – but it’s not.
The new wave of intelligent transport systems, including highly automated cars and vehicles that communicate with each other, and with roadside infrastructure, have the potential to reduce road trauma.
More than 1,200 people have died on our roads in the past 12 months, with thousands seriously injured. We need to do better, and technology is part of the solution.
This year’s ITS World Congress was an opportunity to share information on the past triumphs of intelligent transport systems and map out an informed approach to future challenges, including aspects of road safety.
As chair of the policy roundtable, I asked delegates to focus on two themes – identifying the top three ITS challenges facing communities in the coming three to five years, and the top three solutions for using ITS to enhance the liveability of communities over the same timeframe.
Now is the ideal time to have these conversations, as the opportunities and challenges in the ITS area have never been greater, and the pace of change has never been faster.
By 2031, Australia will grow to just over 30 million people, with most of that future growth expected to occur in and around our capital cities. The government is also committed to investing in regional areas to ensure they share in Australia’s growth.
Australia, like many nations, will experience challenges associated with a larger population. Innovation and technology must be part of the answer and the Coalition Government’s Smart Cities Plan, released earlier this year, ensures they will be a key part of our approach.
Transport is a critical part of supporting productive, accessible, liveable cities that attract talent, encourage innovation, and create jobs, growth and prosperity.
While urban growth is seemingly inevitable, I believe that a crucial part of the solution to urban congestion is increased regional development.
As a government, we are working to grow regional centres through investment in better transport infrastructure, communication links and projects to improve the liveability of rural and regional Australia.
In past years, ITS has delivered important but incremental changes to our transport systems. In Australia, we’ve seen significant benefits from the deployment of dynamic speed zones and active lane management, ramp metering, traveller information systems, e-tolling and other well-established systems.
These kinds of technologies tend to be low cost and high return. They’ve helped us avoid or delay expensive construction works, or take a smarter approach to road operations and maintenance.
This is incredibly important, as Australia faces strong growth in demand for infrastructure and at the same time, significant budget constraints.
That is why the Australian Government will continue to prioritise investment in proven ITS technologies, with those on the horizon right now having the potential to be truly transformative. Rather than delivering us incremental improvements, there is the potential to change the fundamentals of our transport system.
Road safety, for example, is an ongoing problem in large part because of the natural limitations of human drivers. With advances in vehicle automation and connectivity we have, for the first time, the realistic prospect of making the next great leap in improving road safety and reducing deaths on our roads.
Technological change also has the potential to make our infrastructure more efficient on an ever-increasing scale. In addition to automation and improved vehicle connectivity, developments such as big data and the internet of things, more real-time travel information and new digitally based business models will deliver significant efficiency benefits.
It would be a mistake to underestimate the impact that improved mobility can have on the lives of everyday people. Using more on-demand transport to deliver better services in regional areas or giving people with a disability more options through automated transport are particularly exciting prospects.
To realise these benefits, political and community leaders must engage in the debate. The days of ITS being a field only for engineers and technical experts are well behind us. Quite simply, our success in the future will depend on the extent to which we make sound policy and regulatory and investment decisions in response to the emerging challenges.
These challenges include safety security and privacy, the need for new digital infrastructure, how we manage and use data, keeping pace with innovation and integrating with existing systems, especially across internal and external borders.
Finding the right balance between managing safety and security and allowing innovation to help grow the industry is crucial. We all know that regulations alone will not make the broader ITS environment safe and we must look to other technologies to mitigate the risks.
Bearing this in mind, Australia is already undertaking a number of actions to prepare for the future.
In August this year I joined my ministerial colleagues from state and territory governments to sign off on a National Policy Framework for Land Transport Technology, which sets out principles that will foster a national policy approach to emerging transport technologies. The framework will also give industry certainty about the role of government.
The policy principles in this document will help us roll out systems that work across our state jurisdictions, while still taking account of important local differences. Understandably, integrating systems across borders is going to be a challenge across the world, be it Europe, Asia or the Americas.
The policy framework is underpinned by a three-year action plan, which includes priorities such as establishing a regulatory framework for testing automated vehicles, considering how our infrastructure may need to change for connected and automated vehicles, encouraging innovation by making more transport data available as ‘open data’, and exploring how we can increase the uptake of various ITS technologies.
We are also currently reviewing the regulatory barriers to automated vehicles and expect that process to be finalised later this year.
Depending on the results, we will aim to remove any identified barriers and introduce any new safety measures as required.
Naturally, a consistent approach to future regulation for automated vehicles will be critical, and as a principle, we will look to follow international leads to reduce industry costs and make Australia an attractive deployment destination.
Finally, the Australian Government is partnering with governments at all levels to deliver innovative test and trial deployments. Much more work is planned in this area, and I am looking forward to continuing my collaboration with my state counterparts to progress our plans.
Intelligent Transport Systems hold potential to improve the productivity and liveability of communities and industries of all sizes and we must grasp every opportunity to harness the full potential of this exciting sector. I am looking forward to the challenge.