Autonomous trucks on Australian roads by when?

Tony McMullan, Truck Industry Council CEO.

The National Transport Commission (NTC) recently released a public consultation paper titled, Automated Vehicle Safety Reforms and this had me engage in something of a double-take, as I seem to remember this discussion happening previously.

Autonomous vehicles, weren’t they going to take over our roads by 2020?

This issue led me to searching through the plethora of Prime Mover columns that the Truck Industry Council (TIC) has written over the years.

Back in 2015, in this very column, TIC reported on the world first ever trial of a self-driving truck on public roads that took place in the state of Nevada. That truck featured Level 3 Automation.

The trial in the USA, nine years ago, was followed by much pandemonium and brash media comments that autonomous vehicles would be in abundance on roads around the world, including Australia, by the end of the decade.

At the time the established truck manufactures and TIC, were urging caution and tempering that media enthusiasm.

Well, while 2020 delivered the world a positively unforgettable event in the form of COVID, there were no autonomous vehicles to be seen on Australian roads.

A further four years on and Australia, like the rest of the world, awaits the legal deployment of autonomous vehicles. Now I could say that we told you so.

Since 2015, the NTC here in Australia has released no fewer than eleven autonomous vehicle discussion/consultations papers, not including this latest one, that have sought public and industry comments and feedback on the issues associated with the deployment of autonomous vehicles in Australia, including the legal implications of autonomous vehicle crashes.

The current Automated Vehicle Safety Reforms public consultation paper details that the Australian government expects,

“The possibility of small numbers of automated vehicles entering the Australian market from 2026.” And that, “the Bureau of Infrastructure and Transport Research Economics forecast introduction of Level 4 vehicles between 2026 and 2031, with 2.6 per cent of new passenger vehicles to be highly or fully automated by 2030, increasing to around half of all new vehicles by 2046.”

Interesting forecasts given how far vehicle automation has progressed in the previous nine years since the hysteria of 2015.

Given that most, if not all, vehicle manufactures are concentrating on low and zero emission vehicle development and their associated manufacturing costs, in an effort to meet the ever increasing global governmental regulatory reforms that are being deployed to phase out traditional fossil-fuelled vehicles, there really are not many research and development dollars left for autonomous vehicle development at this point in time.

Add to this, that in Australia, the federal, state and territory governments are preparing laws that will assign complete legal responsibility for the operation of an autonomous car, or truck, to the company/corporation who developed and deploy the autonomous driving system, TIC does not envisage many international truck manufactures will be rushing to release autonomous trucks in Australia.

These proposed laws are further complicated, in that those who develop and deploy the autonomous driving system must be an Australian registered organisation.

This is designed to ensure that there is a direct legal pathway to prosecute an Australian company/corporation if the autonomous vehicle is involved in a crash.

Given that most autonomous driving systems will be designed and developed outside of Australia, making a local organisation legally responsible for their deployment and operation here may present many challenges for a vehicle manufacturer.

There are likely to be many countries these manufacturers would prefer to conquer with their technologies before they consider launching such vehicles here. My final point for now.

There is a much larger problem looming for the Australian trucking industry.

With the average age of the Australian truck fleet sitting at 14 years, there are simply too few transport companies renewing their ageing trucks and this will significantly hamper the uptake of any new technologies, be these current advanced safety systems like Automatic Emergency Braking Systems, Lane Departure Warning, Electronic Stability Control, or clean vehicle technologies such as hybrid and zero emission trucks, or simply Euro VI and equivalent, diesel engine trucks.

Let alone the widespread uptake of autonomous trucks.

Governments cannot ignore our ageing truck fleet; there needs to be a whole of government approach including financial incentives put in place to allow operators to transition to newer, safer, cleaner and even possibly, autonomous trucks.

Tony McMullan CEO, Truck Industry Council

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