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Adelaide takes lead on autonomous tech

21 March 2018
From our 'Thinking outside the box' series
Adelaide has the chance to become a world leader with autonomous vehicles, but probably not in the area that is attracting the most attention, writes David Brown.

Many governments are embracing the “jobs and growth” opportunities of encouraging technological development in their jurisdictions.

But in the area of transport, a lot of attention is focused on individual cars serving personal needs or small pod-like buses at airports and university campuses. South Australia should continue to pursue this trend but it is unlikely to get ahead of the field. The more pressing need and a greater opportunity is mass public transit systems.

Adelaide recently hosted the second Australian & New Zealand Driverless Vehicle Initiative conference. It lacked some of the dynamic excitement of the first forum held two years ago because it dealt, in more detail, with the necessary but rather dry subjects of legal liability, insurance issues and guidelines for conducting autonomous tests on public streets.

The focus was clearly on cars, including a presentation about 3-D printing of individual vehicle body types (which is a technology that could see Australia make cars again). The state minister for transport Stephen Mullighan’s reflected the cars approach in his closing speech. In fairness to the Minister he did enthusiastically agree, in a personal conversation afterwards, to the need to embrace transit corridors as an essential opportunity for autonomous vehicles and for the benefit of the community.

The critical issue is not just cashing-in on the most marketable aspect of new technology. Rather it is how to develop a future strategy that is the most cost-effective way to offer travel options to as many people as possible. Autonomous vehicle technology indicates that a strong emphasis should be placed on non-railed, mass transit systems.

Adelaide is very well suited to embrace this opportunity.

Firstly, they see the need. In June 2017 the South Australian government released an update of its 30-year plan for Adelaide. The plan looks at recent major changes to the city and maps out a strategy to make it “more livable, competitive and sustainable into the future”. Number one of the fifteen priority policies and actions is “Transit corridors, growth and activity centres”. Number 8 is for transport in general.

Secondly, they have been pioneering with the implementation of the O-Bahn guided bus way. Adelaide's O-Bahn was introduced in 1986 to service the city's rapidly expanding north-eastern suburbs, replacing an earlier plan for a light rail extension. Autonomous technology makes this style of transport even more enticing.

And thirdly they, like most cities, are looking to actively expand their transit network although there is still a lot of work going on with light rail options.

Focus on cars

It is important to see why automating every aspect of a trip and a focus on relatively low capacity vehicles is a limited approach.

The recent flurry of autonomous concepts has led to fantasies of motoring utopia with door-to-door transport for all your needs.

While working in the back seat as your car drives itself and sharing vehicles are positive options for some, they are not a total solution for all.

The reality is that we do not have the capacity to accommodate all our trips with a “chauffeured” vehicle no matter how comfortable it is..Further the inconvenience of a long, time consuming trip is not totally ameliorated by the possibility of being able to work while you are on the move. Not all work and not all people are suited to sitting reading and/or writing especially in a moving vehicle.

Sharing vehicles seems a way of increasing capacity but it may mean that you wander around to pick up passengers which adds considerably to the pain of the trip as anyone who has used an “airport taxi” will attest.

Why non-rail systems

There are strong beliefs, passions and perhaps even some blind faith in the ability and value of railed systems.

But autonomous vehicle technology is fast allowing non-railed systems to catch up.

Trains and light rail can link carriages together to form a “set” and increase carrying capacity. Autonomous technology will be able to do this electronically rather than the more cumbersome physical coupling.

Railed systems have a clear and permanent presence that indicates that there is an available service. Autonomous systems can have defined corridors, stations, signposting and electronic indicator boards that we also give similar impression.Railed systems have the biggest impact on nearby land values at the moment. But there is an equity issue. Because railed systems are limited in their coverage they provide benefits in selected areas. A more ubiquitous autonomous system will give value growth to many more areas. The issue is not how much a few individual property values are increased but what is the overall benefit to the community.

There appears to be no doubt that we need extensive transit systems, but if the product is expensive to build, then the first stages are often built will much fanfare but the next stages are not often reached (See a short video piece from the AITPM “Has Light Rail passed its use by date?”).

It is important that any part of the system fits in with the whole network. With the removal of the expensive cost of a driver, a more expansive bus network through local areas providing feeder services, could revolutionise transport in our communities.

South Australia has strived to be innovative in many areas. It can now take a very clear position with autonomous vehicle technology that fits into a sustainable strategy for the future, by developing expansive transit systems including high capacity corridors based around autonomous technology.

  • David Brown is a researcher at the Institute of Transport and Logistics Studies.