Driverless technology and a connected future

Telstra Chief Scientist Hugh Bradlow talks about how big data, driverless vehicles and connectivity will impact Australia’s road infrastructure in the future.‘Are you ready to build the new safe road?’ is the key question that was asked of attendees to this year’s Australian Asphalt Pavement Association (AAPA) National Workshop Series (NWS).

From late July to mid-August, the Association held its annual seminar series in the country’s main centres, discussing, sharing and engaging with industry on the key ideas influencing the future of the Australia’s road infrastructure.

Speakers explored the series’ main theme, talking about global community trends, their expectations for Australia’s road infrastructure, and what the future roads will look like with realities such as big data, intelligent machines and driverless vehicle technology in the mix.

Hugh Bradlow, Chief Scientist at Telstra Corporation and keynote speaker for the Perth leg of the workshop series, touched on many of the technological influences that will help shape the future of Australia’s road network.

He talks to Roads & Civil Works Magazine about the ideas and technology that are changing how roads are built, managed and utilised, and the realities of their implementation.

In his capacity at Telstra, Dr. Bradlow explores the long-term future of technology in the market and its importance for Telstra and its clients.

Artificial intelligence, big data, the Internet of Things and autonomous vehicle technology have become running themes in his work, all of which, he says will have an impact on the world as a whole. “Part of what I’m doing is looking at various industries and how they can be improved with these kinds of technology, and one of the things I became interested in was roads,” he says.

Dr. Bradlow has been exploring the kinds of effects these technologies will have on Australia’s workforce in coordination with the Committee for Economic Development of Australia (CEDA), which published the findings from its investigation in its report  Australia’s Future Workforce? in June last year.

The effects of big data, autonomous technology and other considerations such as car sharing apps like Uber, while taking into account economic conditions and population growth, were explored in the research project.

“It turns out the biggest impact will be driverless vehicles,” says Dr. Bradlow.

For Australia’s roads, the impact of driverless technology has the potential to influence optimisation, how roads are designed and built, and even the number of people using the road network.

Dr. Bradlow says the research identified five key things that Australia will see come out of driverless vehicles technology.

The first is an increase in safety. “If we get to a fully autonomous fleet, vehicle safety will improve dramatically. All the stats show about 94 per cent of road accidents are caused by human error. It’s not a stretch to say 90 per cent of accidents could be avoided with autonomous technology,” he says.

The second outcome is a change in user experiences, and how using the car will change both physically and socially.

The third is that fewer roads will need to be built, and the fourth is the impact the technology will have on the number of cars on the network and the amount of space that is freed up as a result.

He says the research estimates that about nine tenths of the cars on the road will be removed in a fully autonomous network.

“In Australia we have a quarter of a trillion dollars of capital tied up in private vehicles, if we take off nine tenths of cars off the road, we could save a lot of that expenditure.”

With fewer roads and fewer cars, Dr. Bradlow says this would free up more space for the likes of parks, public amenities and more.

While the autonomous technology will certainly make a splash in how roads are built, Dr. Bradlow explains that it is the integration and connectivity between the driverless technology and the likes of big data and artificial intelligence that will be the biggest factor that road builders will need to consider.

“When we do have cars that are all connected we can then use big data to assess the overall state of the environment. This includes sensors to measure speed, volume, connectivity and other systems to support vehicle connectivity. Interactions between users and the road will be completely different.”

Dr. Bradlow exemplifies a situation most Melburnians can relate to – trying to navigate the roads around the Melbourne Cricket Ground on a Friday night when the AFL season is at its peak.

“If you had a support system that knew where every car was, it could spread the cars over the system,” he says. Theoretically, this would help reduce congestion and optimise the network relative to its environment.

Dr. Bradlow says it’s hard to predict what kinds of skillsets will be needed when new technology is introduced, but he anticipates that an understanding of the connections between sectors affected by this technology, particularly in the road sector, will be needed.

“One thing that will change in all spaces and for road builders is that the technology will create more connections between industries,” he says. “People will also need to get used to the interaction with robots and autonomous technology.”

When asked if Australia sits on the higher end of the global spectrum in adopting not just autonomous technology, but this connected technology, he highlights the progress the country has made.

“If you asked me that a year ago, I’d say probably not. But, today is different,” he says. “All of the state road authorities are now proactively engaging the technology.”

However, he believes that the industries that surround the road system (legal, insurance, etc) will also need to start planning for the change.

“We’ve also got to communicate to the public, through an education process, to make sure they’re much more informed,” he adds.

A major hurdle in embracing innovation of this kind, he explains, is regulation.

“The technology relies on a very important aspect, and that’s regulation. But Australia is very good at adopting technology if regulation is not in the way,” he says.

He gives the example of pay television versus streaming services such as Netflix, the latter of which has fewer regulative restrictions and is arguably more successful.

“We need to make sure regulation doesn’t get in the way, but that the technology is still implemented correctly.”

He says that the important thing for local government, the road builders and other organisations with a part to play in Australia’s road network is to start thinking about what kinds of roads that need to be built.

“Roads will be different – organisations are going to have to think about the future trajectory of their business. As they’re building roads, they need to think about the industries that will support the road and the technology that will support the future needs of roads.”

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