Is Australia’s road infrastructure intelligent?

CEDA poses the question as to how driverless cars will be able to interact with Australia's existing road infrastructure and its needed digital upgrades.

Image: AshtonPal/flickr

Advisian’s Zoltan Maklary and Andrew Lau discuss the future of autonomous vehicles for Australia, and how they may interact with smart infrastructure.

Smart-managed motorways are a must today. Electric vehicle trials seem to be yesterday’s news, and now the hot topic is a focus on trialling autonomous vehicles (AVs) across most Australian states. But are we ready yet?

An Australian Driverless Vehicle Initiative survey suggests there is strong interest in using AVs, especially for the daily commute, but with some hesitation to allow them to pick up our kids. And like with most technologies, Australians seem happy to pay a premium for it. So, are we ready for it? Yeah, bring it on!

AVs are stacked with light detection and ranging (LIDAR), RADAR, SONAR, cameras, communications and computing equipment, and have the ability to gather intelligence and communicate quickly, securely and reliably with each other and the surrounding environment. This is fundamental to their safe and efficient operation.

The way we use the road environment is governed by a set of road standards and rules. But in some instances there are situational and behavioural interpretations to these rules and common road etiquette which needs to be considered. For instance, letting a driver merge in front of your car during congested traffic or anticipating if a pedestrian will cross the road.

How many of these rules will, or can, be codified – let alone verified and certified?

And what infrastructure and systems are required to support an AV? Our readiness for change to support AVs through infrastructure and intelligent transport systems may be less clear and prepared.

One view is that AVs connected and communicating to everything will be superior to those operating independently within the existing road system. Connected AVs will offer the ability to comprehensively predict, monitor and manage the flow of people and goods, and to optimise network performance in real-time. Further, it could enable AVs to share data about their positions and their future intentions. To achieve this it means digitising our road network and capacity in our communications infrastructure. So what is needed?

Significant work is anticipated to prepare Australia’s road network for a future dominated by AVs, especially to draw the vehicles’ attention to infrastructure such as bridges and tunnels, which will have fewer environmental cues and communication black spots. The roadside infrastructure will be important to ensure there are multiple points of redundancy and the vehicle alone is not responsible for determining what action to take in the environment and conditions. This will involve accelerating a process that is already underway to embed sensors and intelligent transport system technologies across key assets such as bridges, cameras, car parks, streets, and traffic lights. Once this digital capability is in place, enormous data volumes can be generated on road conditions, traffic patterns and vehicle movements.

But what to do until then?

Understandably, the automotive and technology industries have chosen to develop AVs that are mostly independent of roadside infrastructure and systems. However, there could be opportunities in front of us right now – perhaps not yet considered or explored – for AVs to make use of existing traffic management systems with each road authority, such as the Sydney Coordinated Adaptive Traffic System (SCATS) used in NSW and other jurisdictions. Further, AVs could take advantage of the vehicle detector infrastructure used at intersections that support SCATS’ operation. Conversely, SCATS could look at opportunities to use these AVs to communicate other traffic information occurring between intersections. Even connecting to the Emergency Vehicle Priority systems would be of use to ensure an AV knows it is required to move out of the way. These systems offer AVs data to optimise traffic flow and road use efficiency, and offering data in return may provide earlier alerts of road condition and safety.

Digitising our roads and improving communications capability and capacity is happening, but before we start ripping up more roads to install new infrastructure, there is an opportunity to leverage our existing infrastructure and systems. That said the growth opportunities for the players in AVs and road and traffic management systems are big.

This article was originally published at the Centre for Economic Development for Australia (CEDA).

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