Fast lanes – could driverless cars be Newcastle's newest billion dollar industry?

The future ... of Newcastle? Visitors look at the Audi R8 e-tron, a driverless electronic car, as it is displayed at the inaugural International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) Asia in Shanghai in May. PICTURE: AP
The future ... of Newcastle? Visitors look at the Audi R8 e-tron, a driverless electronic car, as it is displayed at the inaugural International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) Asia in Shanghai in May. PICTURE: AP

A PUSH to transform Newcastle into a "living laboratory" for the burgeoning driverless car industry is gaining momentum, with a coalition of Hunter academic groups and businesses winning the support of the NSW Labor Party to bring the billion industry to the Hunter.

Led by driverless car evangelist Garry Ellem, program manager for future industries at the University of Newcastle's Tom Farrell Institute, a consortium of key Hunter players have joined forces to seek approval for a project they say would position the Hunter as a "honeypot" for the fledgling technology. 

The consortium includes the University of Newcastle, Newcastle City Council, Newcastle Now and Hunter Digit, and has lodged an expression of interest with the state government's fledgling Smart Innovation Centre to establish "AUTON" -  the Agile Urban Transport Open Network. 

"We'd say, if you want to use the city as a test bed ... come and join this open network," Dr Ellem said. 

"We're trying to make it easy for people to invest." 

The plan is starting to get some traction. 

Opposition Leader Luke Foley used his budget reply speech on Thursday to campaign the idea, saying Labor would push for the Hunter to be used as a testing ground.

He said the Hunter was "perfectly placed" to be a "national hub of clean technology industry" and could "lead the way" with driverless cars.

"As with research and development in clean energy and battery storage, the Hunter can also lead the way with driverless cars," he said.

Mr Foley said a Labor government would introduce legislation to help drive the industry in NSW, which he said is forecast to be worth more than $90 billion globally by 2030.

He said a Labor government would bring forward legislation to legalise the testing of autonomous electric cars on designated public roads, and that "designated roads in the Hunter region would become the first in the state to trial driverless cars".

The Baird government announced it would establish the Smart Innovation Centre in Western Sydney in April.

It said the centre would be a research and development hub for emerging transport and road technology, and would host future trials of driverless cars. 

In question time on Thursday Premier Mike Baird said the government was happy to work with Labor on the issue of driverless car technology.

Part of the push for the technology in Newcastle is the geography. 

Dr Ellem said Newcastle was ideal as a test site because it was of a big enough scale to produce "useful" results without being so big that a hiccup would cause major issues, as in Sydney or Melbourne. 

He said one way of testing the technology would be a driverless shuttle bus on the university campus, where the roads did not change and the speed limit was low. 

He said freeways like the M1 were also likely test sites because the driving difficulty was lower than congested inner city roads with traffic lights and roundabouts. 

Scot MacDonald, the government's parliamentary secretary for the Hunter, agrees.

Mr MacDonald is the deputy chair of the Parliamentary road safety committee, which is currently holding an inquiry into driverless cars.

He backs the idea of bringing a trial to Newcastle.

"We have a number of witnesses who said we need to trial automated vehicles in a confined area," he said.

"So it's very difficult in an environment like Sydney or Melbourne where there's a lot of density, a lot of traffic. 

"A lot of people said we need to look at Newcastle or Wollongong.

"Newcastle, the Hunter region could build up some expertise some skills in that space [that is] where the economies around the world are going to."

The Australian Driverless Vehicle Initiative (ADVI) demonstrated for the first time in Adelaide last year. Pictured is a Volvo XC90.

The Australian Driverless Vehicle Initiative (ADVI) demonstrated for the first time in Adelaide last year. Pictured is a Volvo XC90.

But timing could be of the essence - Swansea MP and Shadow Minister for Innovation and Better Regulation, Yasmin Catley, said there was a mountain of regulation that needed to be climbed, and other states are already ahead of NSW. 

Ms Catley said NSW "needs to work faster".

In November last year Adelaide's Southern Expressway was closed for a test run of a Volvo prototype, and in March South Australia became the first state in Australia to pass laws allowing for the on-road trials of driverless cars.

Ms Catley said there was a web of 760 national regulations that needed to be overcome.

"That's the first step, we need to be talking to the industry about how to make that happen," she said.

She said the benefits were obvious - "Jobs". 

“We have the potential to lead the nation in capitalising on the emerging driverless car industry and capturing the highly-skilled, well-paying jobs that will flow from it," she said.

The idea of driverless cars may seem distant, but as Mr Foley cautioned on Thursday "driverless cars will be with us sooner than many might think".  

Timing: Swansea MP Yasmin Catley says NSW needs to catch up to South Australia on driverless car technology. Picture: Max Mason-Hubers

Timing: Swansea MP Yasmin Catley says NSW needs to catch up to South Australia on driverless car technology. Picture: Max Mason-Hubers

Last week representatives from Volvo told the NSW Staysafe parliamentary committee that it's driverless cars could be on sale by 2021.

And as recently as last week the Minister for Roads, Duncan Gay, said the government was “considering legislation or regulation to support trials of driverless cars on NSW roads".

While the technology is still being developed, Dr Ellem said overall, driverless cars were much safer than "pretty much every other driver you have on the road". 

"The Google car has actually been in quite a number of crashes," he said.

"And all but one of those accidents have been the fault of another driver or someone inside the car panicking and trying to take over but actually causing an accident." 

Dr Ellem said the group were pleased that the network appeared to have bipartisan support and had been "strongly" supported by Mr MacDonald.

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