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SA Driverless vehicle trial success

ARRB Managing Director Gerard Waldron talks to Roads & Civil Works Magazine about South Australia's driverless vehicle trial last year and where to from here.

ARRB Managing Director Gerard Waldron talks to Roads & Civil Works Magazine about South Australia's driverless vehicle trial last year and where to from here.On Saturday 9 November last year, national media outlets converged on Adelaide’s Southern Expressway for a breaking news story. The whole nation tuned in to watch.

There was no disaster, no fiery crash or dramatic police pursuit – it was Australia’s first driverless vehicle trial.

Through its Australian Driverless Vehicle Initiative (ADVI), ARRB has partnered with the South Australian Government, and local and international experts, including Swedish carmaker Volvo, Telstra and Bosch. The aim? To run the first driverless vehicle demonstrations in Australia and the southern hemisphere.

Volvo has already undertaken a similar driverless vehicle trial on the streets of Gothenburg, Sweden, as part of its ‘Drive Me’ initiative, which aims to have driverless vehicles on the city’s roads by 2017.

This time, however, all eyes were on Australia.

Roads & Civil Works Magazine has looked previously at the complexities of driverless vehicles and how they may change Australia roads for the future (Oct/Nov 2015 – Driving the Future of Australia’s Road Network), but the question is: how did the driverless vehicle technology perform in its first real Australian road test?

According to ARRB Managing Director Gerard Waldron, exceptionally well. “Any time that you do a demonstration like this and it goes off without a hitch, it’s a good day,” he says.

The trial was conducted on a closed, controlled section of Adelaide’s Southern Expressway which, Mr. Waldron explains, was the perfect location. “It closely reflected the type of freeway that goes around Gothenburg in Sweden, and it made that demonstration quite easy to replicate.”

The fully driverless vehicle, a Volvo XC90, drove up and down the section of the road, running concurrently with three other vehicles with varying degrees of autonomy. The vehicles travelled at speeds of up to 70 kilometres per hour. “Only one of them was really a level three autonomy, or ‘hands-free’,” explains Mr. Waldron. “The other vehicles had different autonomous capability, so we could see the difference between normal and autonomous vehicles.”

A pace car (or standard vehicle) was used in the trial to simulate traffic and show first-hand how the driverless vehicle technology interacts with other regular traffic and adapts to changing conditions. The XC90 demonstrated automatic lane keeping, adaptive cruise control and active queue assistance under the supervision of a trained Volvo operator.

“It stayed in its lane and it negotiated all the driving challenges in the road without anyone driving. Basically we had a really thorough driving demonstration,” says Mr. Waldron.

Ministers and media from across Australia were among a handful of people to travel in the XC90, South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill being one of them.

“The Premier took his seat in the Volvo with some trepidation, but was soon engaged in conversation with the ‘driver’, oblivious to the fact that his hands were not on the wheel,” says Mr. Waldron.

Mr. Waldron was also one of the select few to ride in the trial vehicle. Despite the significance of the trial, and it representing the culmination of years of work, he wasn’t surprised by the outcome and the driverless vehicle’s performance. “I guess for me, looking back and talking about it for so long, I didn’t expect to be surprised by the end result. In lots of ways we already relinquish control of the vehicle when we’re in the passenger seat.”

He suggests that this first demonstration in South Australia may indicate what the first applications of driverless vehicle technology may be in the future. The driverless vehicle may serve the initial function of driving itself along controlled sections of road, such as those in a freeway environment. Mr. Waldron says that drivers will then be given significant warning that they need to take control of the vehicle as soon as the vehicle comes to the chosen exit. If this cannot happen, he suggests the car would pull over as a safety precaution. “We’re not challenging the vehicle to drive down narrow streets,” he says. “We’re already putting it in a fundamentally safe environment to begin with.”

Volvo further underlined its confidence in its driverless vehicle technology around the globe in October last year when it announced that it will accept “full liability” whenever one of its cars is operating in autonomous mode. In short, if the driverless vehicle fails or crashes, the car manufacturer will take responsibility and liability away from the driver. Mr. Waldron says that this step from Volvo shows the Swedish company is positive that its cars will not fail. “They’ve built the system into these vehicles where they’re happy to be accountable, and I think currently that puts Volvo ahead of others offering autonomous systems.”

With these significant steps from both the Australian industry and Volvo, Mr. Waldron is enthusiastic about the progress the ADVI and driverless vehicle technology will make in Australia in the coming years. Even the immediate impact of the trial has been positive. “As of the end of the trial, we had 36 partners in ADVI and by Christmas we’ll have 50. That increase includes state road authorities and major corporations – ADVI now has some quite important partnerships,” he says. The ADVI has also announced Adelaide as the home of its secretariat, making it the group’s central hub for research and organisational meetings.

With ARRB behind the wheel of the incentive, Mr. Waldron is confident the driverless vehicle technology will continue to flourish in Australia. “We’re ecstatic about it, and the ADVI is now getting the conversation going and paving the way for this technology to work.”

As for the coming year, Mr. Waldron asserts that the there are some serious plans in place to push driverless technology even further. “We’re very confident that there’ll be a suite of demonstrations taking place in 2016,” he says.

Valet parking is one application Mr. Waldron says the ADVI is looking to trial next year. The idea is that a driverless vehicle could be dropped off at the entrance of a parking complex and be left to find a parking space on its own, saving its occupants the time and effort. “We’re already looking at valet parking demonstrations, as these are going to be pretty important as an early application,” he says. “A number of car manufacturers already use auto park systems and the next generation of those should work so that the car can park by itself.”

Mr. Waldron says that there’s also potential to trial driverless shuttles to and from airports and long-term parking lots.

“There have been some of these demonstrations internationally and the development of the technology is in progress at the moment,” he adds.

The ADVI will now start looking at some key areas in relation to driverless vehicle technology, including the human factor. “The important things to look at now are around road experience, public acceptance and more complex road environments,” says Mr. Waldron. “We need to understand those tougher environments and we need to look at how pedestrians will work around a car driving by itself.”

This story has appeared in the Roads & Civil Works February/March 2016 edition – get your copy here today!

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