Australia is ramping up autonomous vehicles – but we are on track to make the same mistakes we made with cars

The Autonobus taking passengers for a ride at Latrobe University.
  • Expert warns Australian cities risk integrating autonomous transport in the wrong way.
  • The $500 million fund for new parking at train stations is unlikely to do anything for commuters.
  • A rethink is needed to address transport needs of the future and autonomous transport to be part of that.

We’re doing autonomous buses wrong and we risk repeating the same transportation mistakes we made with cars or making them worse as autonomous vehicles arrive on our roads, an expert has told Business Insider Australia.

Dr John Stone, senior lecturer in transport planning at Melbourne University, says cities are still catering to cars against the commonly accepted wisdom of “sharing space” with all forms of transport, including pedestrians.

“Any of Melbourne’s major tram stops, or the area outside Flinders Street Station, are good examples of how we channel pedestrian movement in ways that don’t reflect pedestrian volumes but rather the amount of space we want for our cars,” he said, pointing to a similar story in Sydney around Central Station.

Stone said it was clear as space became more in-demand in cities in the future, roadways would need to be shared between cars, cyclists, and public transport – something European cities are already doing.

“It’s very difficult to get these [autonomous vehicles] to operate in traffic situations,” he said. “We have to break with the idea of our primary objective as not getting in the way of cars before we introduce these new technologies into our busy streets.”

Stone said there was a risk local and state governments would respond to autonomous vehicles by fencing in roads and putting in barriers.

“I fear the requirements of [autonomous vehicles] will require people to put fences up around them … and that defeats the purpose of having easy pedestrian access through city centres,” he said.

“We will separate space further. I can imagine putting fences along major shopping strips because otherwise, the autonomous vehicle will never be able to move along the street because of pedestrians.”

Despite his concerns, he believes the need for more transport in our cities is very clear. In recent times, the state governments are starting to move towards stronger future-proofing strategies.

The ACT government is making strides in autonomous vehicle technology, with $1.35 million committed over two years to support trials in the capital. In the government’s draft transport strategy, it highlighted delivery drones and autonomous vehicles need to be considered due to the rapid pace of innovation.

Last week, a retirement village in Belconnen in the ACT was announced as the site of a new autonomous bus shuttle trial. The Canberra Times reports the ACT government is facilitating the trial.

In recent months, autonomous vehicle trials have also begun in NSW, with a driverless bus in Sydney’s Olympic Park and further trials slated for Coffs Harbour and Armidale.

NSW has been a leader in autonomous vehicle technology, putting out a call for expressions of interest in December 2017.

The pilot in Olympic Park aims to test how to integrate the technology with other parts of the transportation network, while the tests in Coffs Harbour and Armidale will focus on shuttling people around the cities.

The tests in Olympic Park this year began running with actual commuters. Zdnet reports the Olympic Park vehicle is capable of reaching speeds of up to 40 kilometres per hour, speeds at which any collision with a pedestrian can kill.

Sydney is also planning on using autonomous vehicle technology on the new metro line between Sydney’s north west and Chatswood.

A tram passes Flinders Street Station in Melbourne. Photo: Scott Barbour / Getty Images)

While in 2016, the Victorian government allocated $4.5 million to an Intelligent Transport System transport technology grants program, which in part funded an autonomous vehicle project at Melbourne’s La Trobe University. It saw more than 500 people use an autonomous bus to ride across the university campus.

In a statement at the time, CEO of HMI Technologies Dean Zabrieszach said the Autonobus passed every test it underwent during more than six months of operation at Latrobe University.

“The vehicle was put through rigorous safety, technical, operational and passenger testing on a pre-programmed route, interacting with pedestrians, cars, buses and cyclists,” Zabrieszach said. “No other trial in Australia has tested an autonomous vehicle of this type in such a dense urban location.”

The Autonobus taking passengers for a ride at Latrobe University.

Experts say don’t focus on a carpark, focus on the last mile

In an announcement from the Liberal-National coalition, a $500 million commuter carpark fund has been floated as a solution to Sydney and Melbourne’s transport woes.

“A $500 million commuter carpark fund … will improve access to public transport hubs and take tens of thousands of cars off our roads,” treasurer of the caretaker government Josh Frydenberg claimed.

However, several academics noted in The Conversation the cost per parking spot ranged anywhere from $10,000 all the way up to $68,000. Suggesting the $500 million fund would build between 30,000 and 50,000 parks or about enough parking for four per cent of commuters.

Also, the vast majority of train commuters either walk or take the bus to the station, with many travelling a few kilometres between home and public transport, in effect what’s known as ‘the last mile gap’.

Professor Aniruddha Desai, director of the La Trobe Centre for Technology Infusion, who ran the study on the autonomous bus at the university, said there was potential to roll out the technology to meet the transportation needs to and from train stations in the years ahead.

“You have to have effective solutions to connect people to transport, it’s a need which should be filled with solutions like first and last mile connectivity,” he said. “I think that automated vehicles could be part of the solution to get people on more main forms of transport.”

This is where autonomous transport comes in, rather than a carpark, to bridge the gap between the train station, work, or the house, those first and last miles.

“[Autonomous vehicles] technology is ready for deployment in other similar environments where there is high activity and a controlled set of circumstances, including first and last mile transport services,” Zabrieszach said last year.

In the report at the conclusion of the Autonobus trial at Latrobe University, it was suggested the bus be used to shuttle commuters from the nearby train station to the university.

Professor Desai said the carpark solution being proposed by the federal government was almost the worst possible idea. “Car parks are one of the worst forms of urban land utilisation,” he said.

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