Across the world, companies are in a fierce battle to assemble the right mix of hardware and software technology to deliver autonomous vehicles. With dozens of companies working on one of the hardest problems, driverless vehicles will be here in the not too distant future.
So how is Australia getting ready to facilitate their introduction and allow businesses and citizens to take advantage of the technology?
Last Friday, the 16th meeting of Infrastructure and Transport Ministers was held and they have made a really important determination, available in the now-public documents at infrastruture.gov.au (credit to Sally Houguet for discovering these).
Ministers agreed that the future Automated Vehicle Safety Law will be implemented through Commonwealth law. This will deliver a nationally consistent regulatory approach and will enable the safe operation of automated vehicles on public roads across Australia. Ministers will make future decisions on drafting instructions for the new law in late 2022 through ITMM. Ministers also agreed that an Intergovernmental Agreement will be developed to support the new automated vehicle regulatory governance arrangements by late 2023.
Ministers agreed that the National Transport Commission and the Commonwealth will work with state and territory governments to develop a consistent approach to complementary legislation and will report back to Ministers in late 2022. Complementary state and territory law amendments will support the national regulatory framework for automated vehicles. The Automated Vehicle Safety Law is expected to commence by 2026.
There’s a lot in there, so let’s break it down.
A really important decision is the agreement that Australia will determine autonomous legislation at a national level, not state-by-state. This is a fantastic move, given the additional delays and costs associated with passing laws in VIC, NSW, ACT, QLD, WA, TAS AND NT.
This global approach to autonomy is great, matching much more with the Aussie-wide Australian Design Rules (ADRs) vehicles must comply with to be sold in the country, rather than the state-based road rules, which differ considerably based on your location.
If we look at international progress on the issue, the California DMV already has approved 3 companies, Cruise, Nuro and Waymo to deploy autonomous (level 4) vehicles without a driver. If we include the companies also in testing, we add Apollo, AutoX, Weride and Zoox. If you look at the list of companies who have a permit for testing autonomous vehicles with a driver, the list includes every big auto name that’ll be around in 10 years, as well as plenty of startups.
For automakers wishing to have their technology approved for use, a country-wide standard enables a much faster path to success and for consumers, they know regardless of the town or city they get into an autonomous vehicle or order a commercial service from one, it’ll be adhering to the same, safe regulation.
This brings us to the not-so-great part of the agreement – the timeline.
The Ministers agreed an Intergovernmental Agreement will be developed to support the new automated vehicle regulatory governance arrangements by late 2023. Ok, next year, that’s not too bad, in Feb of 2022, that doesn’t seem far away, but it’s the final line that is problematic.
The Automated Vehicle Safety Law is expected to commence by 2026.
If the process actually takes that long, we’ve lost all benefits of having a national agreement. The world of autonomous vehicles is moving incredibly fast and 2026 is just too slow, we need regulation before then.
Autonomous vehicles have the opportunity to lower the cost of rides to be one of, if not the cheapest forms of transport, helping those facing cost pressures lower one of their weekly budget items. They also offer people, particularly the elderly a greater opportunity for mobility, especially once they give up their license.
For food delivery services, or commercial delivery of goods, the speed can increase and the prices increase as your remove the cost of the human from the equation.
Every year these benefits are delayed, it is a detriment to society and with autonomous vehicles far less likely to crash, these will also save lives. Delays to the approval of provably safer autonomous vehicles are something every legislator, should consider incredibly carefully.
If we don’t accelerate this timeline, the rest of the developed world will leave us behind.
Read the full communique from the Infrastructure and Transport Minister’s meeting here (PDF).