While there has been plenty of news  from  the US and Europe about autonomous vehicles and  the potential for driverless trucks  in those regions there has been precious little written about the possibility of driverless vehicles on Australian roads.

Many may not be aware there is a peak industry body for  driverless vehicles in Australia which is working behind the scenes to accelerate the safe and successful introduction of driverless vehicles to Australia.

The Australian Driverless Vehicle Initiative, or ADVI, is the peak body for driverless vehicles in in Australia and NZ and it is supported by 150 ‘partners’ from across the automotive, insurance, transport, motoring, parking, communications, banking, logistics, defence, technology and research sectors as well as local, state and federal government.

ADVI was the entity that was behind  the successful co-ordination of  an road driverless car demonstration in Adelaide, South Australia in late 2015, which was the first trial of its kind  in the Southern Hemisphere.

ADVI says its efforts are focused  on education, advocacy and demonstrations to help to inform and raise awareness, as well as encouraging community acceptance, and to promote understanding the ‘lifestyle benefits of driverless vehicles, and economic opportunities that come with an automated vehicle industry’ which it adds is  valued at over $AUD95 billion per annum.

It also  undertakes independent research to assist partners and the community to better understand the opportunities and barriers to the introduction of driverless technology, as well as developing and sharing expert thought papers, and to provide opportunity for Australian companies and researchers to collaborate in national and international projects.

ADVI contends that as one of only a handful of countries pioneering on-road driverless vehicle research, Australia can become a global leader in driverless vehicle technologies and invigorate its automotive and technology sectors.

For all of that the question everyone asks is  whether Australia and Australians are really ready for autonomous or driverless vehicles.

Australia has been one of he pioneers of autonomous trucks in  mining operations  and has seen them working in various mines across the country from the Pilbara to the Hunter Valley over the past 20 or so years and the country is also  familiar with robots and highly mechanised vehicles that pick fruit, harvest crops and milk cows, but it is a big leap from those uses to  driverless trucks hauling goods on our major transport routes?

For all of that ADVI says that the parlous state of many of Australia’s regional roads, driverless freight mean it is not currently possible.

Across the Pacific in the USA, leading autonomous vehicle tech leader , TuSimple, which is closely aligned with truck maker Navistar has trialled a driverless truck in America, successfully completing a 1500km  test, transporting a load of watermelons  without human control over the truck. America’s extensive Interstate network would have helped this. However whether a similar test could be achieved away from our main trunk motorway network down the Eastern Seaboard between Brisbane and Melbourne via Sydney, is probably doubtful at this stage.

However ADVI’s executive director, Rita Excell, said the US trial showed how far vehicle automation had progressed and revealed that TuSimple personnel have visited Australia in prior to Covid.

“TuSimple was in Australia in 2019 and came to meet with a number of our partners to get a better understanding of what the opportunities were in Australia,” Rita Excell said.

“Australia is a world leader in remotely controlled heavy vehicles for commercial applications in mines and we’re definitely unprecedented with our experience and the level of autonomy” she added.

“However, automated road freight haulage faced challenges in Australia, due to infrastructure that was not fit for purpose, except for parts of the eastern states.”

“It is a really big barrier, if you look at the roads internationally, where this technology is being applied, they are divided carriageways with multiple lanes, and we’re really keen to see an agenda to improve the standard of our roads, particularly the National Highway,”  Rita Excell said.

“We’re very pleased to see a program to duplicate the Princes Highway and some of the key links to the west of Australia from the east coast, because automated vehicles require high-quality road infrastructure to follow a route,” she added.

In addition to improving the quality of major freight routes, Excell said that for vehicle automation to flourish in Australia, line markings and telecommunications also needed to be improved, especially in the regions and rural areas.

“We need wider lanes, a minimum of 3.5 to 3.8 metre lanes and, in regional areas, we don’t come anywhere near that,” she said.

Excell said  that there is lifesaving technology on vehicles like trucks that are sold today that can’t operate because of deficient infrastructure in regional areas.

“Good-quality telecommunications is needed for safety features such as laser based LiDAR, a digital 3D plot of the road network, in addition to complementary technologies such as cameras, radars, maps and GPS.

“We’re really keen to see greater progress around high-definition mapping of the Australian road network, looking at connectivity and filling some of those technology black spots,” Excell said.

“There is a role for the federal government. There needs to be consistency and equality of access to [communication] services, particularly around the freight task.

“When it comes to improving the safety and efficiency of freight, I think a critical part of that is to make sure we have good infrastructure in place and that includes digital and physical infrastructure,” concluded Rita Excell.