Journey of driverless vehicles to NSW

GET SET: NRMA has identified Newcastle as a prime location to test driverless cars.
GET SET: NRMA has identified Newcastle as a prime location to test driverless cars.

Few of us look forward to the daily grind of morning drive. Almost all of us can think of something we would rather be doing than changing gears and watching the bumper bars of the cars ahead, all the while remembering that we get to do it all over again at the end of the working day. Imagine what we could be doing if our car was driving itself instead.

Luckily for commuters, the concept of automated (or driverless) vehicles being used on our roads is gaining momentum towards becoming a reality, as industry funnels huge investment into the development of their technology. We’re also going to need laws and guidelines to cover how this automated future is going to work in the real world. 

The law in NSW allows for low to mid-level automation vehicles  (think auto-emergency braking, automatic steering and parking assistance), meaning today high-level to fully automated vehicles are illegal. A change to the laws would be needed for the safe introduction of driverless cars. Excitingly, with a focus on balancing safety and innovation, the NSW Government has revealed plans to introduce changes to allow for trials of driverless vehicles on our roads, providing a framework for industry-led innovation. This creates huge potential for social and economic benefits to stem from a fully automated road network including improved road safety, increased mobility and reduced congestion. However, it is crucial regulation keeps up.

Legislative amendments are needed to open our roads to fully-automated vehicles, a task which is compounded by questions including training requirements, liability for crashes, insurance requirements, data protection and privacy, hacking, and scepticism about the power of machines to make moral decisions. Many of the answers will come from effective dialogue with industry, the public and real-life application.

Perhaps having learnt from the 19th Century debacle caused by different railway track sizes across states, Australia has made sound efforts to avoid the US experience of individual state approaches causing cross-border inconsistencies. Instead, a national legislative and regulatory framework has been prioritised to accommodate automated vehicles.

However, in order to best formulate a plan, there needs to be informed input from stakeholders to the national projects based on experience and testing in local environments. That makes an interim stage crucial and requires some state-by-state innovation. In response to the Staysafe Committee’s Parliamentary Inquiry into Driverless Vehicles and Road Safety, the NSW Government has revealed plans to amend legislation to enable safe and legal trialling of automated vehicles in the state. While more detail is yet to come about what approach will be taken to facilitate the technology, the NRMA has identified Newcastle as a prime location to test driverless cars.

There is still some work ahead to enable on-road trials and demonstrations of automated and connected vehicles in NSW. Nevertheless, as long as safety is maintained as a paramount consideration, opening the state’s boarders to industry is an effective way to encourage transport innovation and continued investment in the economy. This means law makers need to support our road agencies, industry and the market to continue to innovate and help find the pieces to the legal puzzle and hopefully, one day, deliver us from the grind of the daily drive.

Ramza Martin is a graduate, Corporate Commercial and Government Advisory Group, at Hicksons Lawyers