The Federal Government is being urged to make the introduction of driverless cars a priority, in the hope of slashing the road toll.
But a report delivered today acknowledges there are plenty of questions over the technology’s introduction to Australian roads.
It considered the full range of what it calls ‘automated vehicles’ — from cars and trucks that can take some control over steering and speed, to cars that can control the entire operation, giving the passenger no responsibility at all.
- In most cases when ‘driverless‘ is used in the media, ‘self-driving‘ might be more accurate
- The vehicle has the capability to drive itself but still relies on the ability of a human to take over
They include how automated vehicles will respond in dangerous situations, liability for accidents, the potential for vehicles to be hacked, and ownership of data the car produces.
But the parliamentary report found that given the potential for a dramatic reduction in fatalities and other accidents, those questions should be answered quickly.
The Standing Committee on Industry, Innovation, Science and Resources specifically looked into social issues surrounding the vehicles’ introduction.
It found the technology will need to earn a “social licence” before it is widely accepted, and overcome the general discomfort some may feel about having a computer take control of their car.
The committee found the best way to overcome many of these issues is literally put people behind the wheel of a driverless car: It urged the Government to run public trials “that enable members of the public to experience automated vehicles on public roads”.
The committee’s chair, Nationals MP Michelle Landry, said public nervousness about automated vehicles was to be expected.
“It will take a while, people are always a bit wary of what they don’t know and don’t understand,” she said.
“But I think the more we have things like automated buses, automated trains, I do believe that the taxi industry will probably get on board early in the piece, that it will be more accepted.
“But I think the advantages will outweigh the disadvantages.”
Driverless cars will need to earn a “social licence”, the parliamentary report found.
Improved safety the priority
The report identified the enormous potential to improve safety on the roads as the single most significant change automated vehicles will bring.
It heard evidence that human error may be a factor in over 90 percent of crashes — meaning if human error could eventually be eliminated, the number of road accidents could potentially plummet.
The committee concluded the safety gains are so great, they alone make the technology worth pursuing.
“Given the wide range of witnesses arguing that autonomous, or even highly automated, vehicles could lead to a substantial reduction in the number of deaths and injuries on Australian roads, the committee is of the view that this important social goal should make the introduction of these vehicles a priority for Australia,” it found.
It also tackled the complex issue of ethics around driverless vehicles — in particular, who takes responsibility when they crash.
Car manufacturer Volvo has indicated it is willing to accept “full liability for damages or injuries whenever one of its cars is in full autonomous mode”.
It called on the Federal Government to mandate that all other car manufacturers eventually selling autonomous vehicles take the same position.
In March 2017, Uber had to suspend a driverless car trial after an accident in Arizona. (Reuters: FRESCO NEWS/Mark Beach)
Ms Landry said clear regulation in the area will be required.
“I’m actually thinking it might have to be federal legislation, so it goes right across the country,” she said.
“Because it’s a whole different way of operating vehicles.”
The question becomes more complex when it comes to partially automated cars — a likely stepping stone on the way to fully driverless vehicles.
The report did not land on a firm position on the question, but stated it is critical the public is made part of the process, as the tricky questions are eventually answered.
Jobs to come, but more jobs to go
Autonomous vehicles will bring opportunity, but will also undoubtedly cost jobs.
The most obvious are professional drivers: in trucking, public transport, taxi driving and elsewhere.
It’s not just drivers however, with the impact to reach as far as crash repairers, traffic police, insurers, and even lawyers put out of work by the reduction in traffic accidents.
The committee heard evidence that while new jobs will be created, automated vehicles will likely result in an overall reduction in jobs.
But Ms Landry put forward an optimistic view, that it is hard to predict the jobs of the future.
“It’s the same as now, when we say to the kids starting school that a lot of the jobs they’ll have haven’t even been thought of yet,” she said.
“It’s very exciting, we’re excited about it all — and there’s a lot more to come with it.”
It was also suggested that given the decades it will take for the technology to fully roll out, many people currently in driving occupations will have retired by the time their job becomes redundant.
Hacking ‘will not be a problem’, but data ownership might
The movement towards self-driving cars suffered a blow in 2015, when Fiat Chrysler had to recall 1.4 million cars in the United States over the potential for them to be hacked.
Hacking becomes an even greater concern when cars are being driven entirely by computers.
But David Pickett from Volvo Australia assured the committee it was no longer possible.
“For someone to get in and start controlling something is quite a different design to what the car is set up to do,” he said.
“It is not designed to take that sort of input.”
But the report is recommending the National Cyber Security Strategy look into autonomous vehicles regardless.
It also raised the issue of data security, given autonomous cars will be collecting large quantities of data on when and where people travel.
It recommended further investigation into establishing exactly who owns data produced by a car, and the rights of consumers, manufacturers, insurers and government agencies.
Fiat Chrysler had to recall 1.4 million cars after researchers gained remote control of a Jeep.