The National Transport Commission (NTC) has released a much anticipated policy paper to facilitate the introduction of automated vehicles on Australian roads. Its recommendations will set the direction for regulatory reform and policy development in all states and territories to achieve a nationally consistent framework.

The policy paper is the culmination of a one-year project to identify and overcome existing barriers to the safe introduction of more automated vehicles. Following two rounds of industry consultation (which generated around 80 submissions) and a detailed audit of existing legislative controls, the paper’s findings and recommendations have now received formal approval from the Transport and Infrastructure Council.

The NTC has now commenced the consultation process for the implementation of the first set of recommendations, which has been targeted for early 2017.

What’s in the policy paper?

The policy paper makes 9 recommendations following a regulatory reform timeline split into 3 phases (near-term, medium-term and long-term reforms). A phased approach was identified as particularly important by the NTC given that technology in this area is constantly evolving, and moving too quickly may see Australia fall out of step with international standards, or create bad law not suited to the eventual directions the technology takes. The reform timeline is based on the following assumptions:

  • There is already demand to trial vehicles with varying levels of automation on public roads, which will only increase in the next two to three years.
  • Large-scale deployment of increasingly automated (but not fully automated) vehicles will occur by 2020.
  • Large-scale deployment of fully automated vehicles will occur sometime after 2020.

The NTC has also placed a clear emphasis on ensuring that any reform is consistent with international standards and fosters a harmonised approach in Australia.

Classifying automated driving functions

The NTC recommends that the SAE International Standard J3016 be used to distinguish different types of automated vehicles, based on their level of automation. This standard, which was widely supported in submissions made to the NTC, defines the following categories of automation:

  • Partially automated – where the vehicle has some automated features but the human driver must at all times monitor the driving environment and the automated system and can intervene if required.
  • Conditionally automated – where the automated system is able to drive for sustained periods of time without a human monitoring the driving environment or the automated system, but where the human driver can take control of driving and can intervene if required.
  • Highly automated – where the automated system drives the vehicle for sustained periods of time or in defined areas without a human monitoring the driving environment or the automated system, and a human is not required to take control of driving or intervene while the automated system drives the vehicle.
  • Fully automated - where the automated system drives the vehicle at all times.

Reform timeline

The NTC’s overall reform timeline is summarised in the diagram below:

The NTC’s immediate priorities are to enable an increased number of on-road trials of automated vehicles to be conducted across Australia, to increase awareness of and public confidence in automated driving technology and to identify the regulatory challenges that will be most pertinent going forward. To give effect to this, the policy paper recommends that:

  • the NTC (along with Ausroads) develop national field testing guidelines for trials and on-road testing of automated vehicles (submissions on the guidelines are now open, and may be made here until 16 January 2017); and
  • state and territory road and transport agencies undertake an immediate review of existing exemption powers to ensure that those bodies have necessary powers to undertake and manage on-road trials.

The NTC also proposes to develop national enforcement guidelines in the next 12 months to clarify the concepts of “control” and “proper control” of vehicles with varying levels of automation. To provide some immediate direction and certainty for industry participants on this issue, the Transport and Infrastructure Council has taken the interim step of confirming its existing policy position in respect of driver control that for vehicles that are partially and conditionally automated, the human driver has full control for legal purposes (e.g. for allocating liability in the event of an accident).

Medium-term reforms

The NTC’s overall objective for the medium term is to create a complete regulatory framework to support the large-scale roll-out of automated vehicles.

In early 2017, the NTC proposes to commence development of a performance based safety assurance regime for vehicles that don’t require a human driver (i.e. highly automated and fully automated vehicles). The concept of a safety assurance regime received unanimous support in submissions to the NTC, and could, for example, include new licence, registration or accreditation schemes. Following the implementation of the assurance regime:

  • the NTC will propose legislative reforms that clarify the meaning of “driver” and “driving”, paving the way for automated driving systems to be regarded as in control and the removal of the human driver as the person legally liable for the operation of the vehicle; and
  • state and territory governments will review compulsory insurance schemes (i.e. third party and national injury schemes) to ensure appropriate coverage is in place for accidents involving automated vehicles.

Long-term reforms

In late 2017, the NTC proposes to commence work on developing a regime for government access to automated vehicle data, which will seek to strike a balance between the need for network efficiency and enforcement of traffic laws against protecting the privacy of individuals (our earlier article on the privacy implications of connected cars can be found here).

As the NTC noted, the issues surrounding access to data from connected and automated vehicles is also currently under examination by both the Productivity Commission (in the context of data availability and use more generally) and the ACCC (in its study of the new car market).

As the automated vehicle industry evolves, the NTC envisages that existing outdated standards are likely to be a barrier to large-scale deployment of highly and fully automated vehicles. The NTC sees this as a global issue, and recommends that the Commonwealth Government continues to engage with the United Nations Working Party 29 on vehicle standards, and through supporting the development and adoption of international standards into the Australian Design Rules for new cars, in order to promote ongoing international harmonisation in this area.

Conclusion

The NTC’s policy paper is an important first step in implementing the very significant regulatory reforms required to facilitate the increasing use of vehicle automation technology in Australia. This is a global trend that will no doubt revolutionise the nature of road transport for the next generation, and bring with it significant productivity benefits. It is important for Australian regulators to engage with these issues in a positive way so that Australia is not left as an interested bystander, rather than active participant, in this revolution.