GORDON WHITEHEAD: Why aren’t we preparing for the driverless vehicle?

STEER: Driverless vehicles have the potential to cut traffic congestion, improve fuel efficiency and reduce pollution, as well as increase road safety.

STEER: Driverless vehicles have the potential to cut traffic congestion, improve fuel efficiency and reduce pollution, as well as increase road safety.

Both Labor and Liberal parties have announced plans for the ‘30-minute city’ and recently, Malcolm Turnbull embraced the concept of the ‘Smart City’, releasing the Commonwealth’s Smart Cities Plan that will see the federal government fund state infrastructure projects. This enthusiasm for new urban infrastructure and technologies presents both challenges and opportunities for our city.

Our challenge is the transition of our regional economy beyond the mining investment boom to a knowledge-based economy, where economic growth, quality of life and competitive differentiation of our region will increasingly be derived from people and their skills and knowledge, as well as the capacity of the economy to create innovation.

Even though the words “innovation”, “30-minute city” and “smart cities” will come thick and fast from both parties in this coming election, please don’t dismiss these words as just meaningless sloganeering. These plans and slogans present many opportunities to transform our economy.

For example, the Commonwealth recently announced their interest in proposals for smart innovative ideas to improve travel times on existing regional transport corridors. This is a golden opportunity to establish Newcastle as the NSW hub for the research, development and integration of driverless vehicles and associated transport technologies.

South Australia and Western Australia have already small driverless vehicle trials. But there’s nothing in NSW, which leaves the door open for Newcastle. Especially with the University of Newcastle chomping at the bit to test autonomous vehicles on our public roads and companies like Varley Electric Vehicles that already design and build high quality electric vehicles of all types for industry and government. We also have transport related software and hardware companies and startups here such as Newie Ventures, Furmech, Novecom, VIMOC Technologies and RechargingNSW.

As the era of the driverless car draws nearer, Australia has literally been sleeping at the wheel. While almost every automaker is now piloting or using forms of autonomous driving technology, there are various technical, regulation and policy barriers that remain to delay the adoption of this important technology. Driverless vehicles and infrastructure technologies have the potential to cut traffic congestion, improve fuel efficiency and reduce pollution, as well as increase road safety.

In the UK, Chancellor George Osborne announced in this year’s budget that driverless vehicles would be trialled on UK roads and motorways from 2017. Osborne says this will put the UK in a position to "lead the world in new technologies and infrastructure”. In the US, a fleet of Google’s self-driving cars were test driven over 2,400,000km with only one minor accident and Google says its self-driving car will be widely available by 2020.

I think we need to remind our candidates during this election period that if the Commonwealth thinks urban transport infrastructure needs to become “smart” – Newcastle is ready and willing.

Gordon Whitehead, president of the Lunaticks Society 

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