Comment

Editorial

Driverless cars not a quick-fix for traffic congestion

Visionary proposals to involve the ACT in early adoption of industry innovation can capture the imagination of voters.

Canberra Liberals want to commit the territory to trials for new-technology autonomous vehicles in the national capital, similar to schemes in South Australia, some American states and Britain, which has a generous research and development fund. 

Opposition transport spokesman Alistair Coe believes Australia is only a few years away from having commercially available autonomous vehicles. He says Canberra's dispersed population makes it difficult for traditional public transport to operate efficiently, which has caused high dependency on cars.

Mr Coe believes the territory's well-developed road networks are a good place for trialling autonomous cars. Canberra Business Chamber chairman Glenn Keys is enthusiastic, too, suggesting Canberra could be the first jurisdiction in the Asia-Pacific region to legalise self-driving cars.

Their enthusiasm mirrors the ACT government's flirtation with electric cars in 2009, after entrepreneurs selling the technology indicated new rechargeable models could be zipping along Tuggeranong Parkway and Adelaide Avenue by 2012.

The technology offered nothing in overcoming the city's dependency on cars, and the problem caused by a dispersed population. Yet, ActewAGL and proponent Better Place Australia signed an agreement worth about $60 million over 10 years to supply the electric car-charging network with renewable energy.

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ACT businesses joined in, as well, on a project that ultimately withdrew from Australia and floundered elsewhere around the world.

Governments face a difficult conflict when trying to generate jobs and new industries that ultimately benefit the economy. On the one hand, they need to compete with other jurisdictions, many of which are willing to throw generous incentives at businesses to locate their operations and jobs in their state or territory. But trying to pick winners can be an expensive disaster, especially in fickle cutting-edge industries with lots of potential but no proven track record.

Electric cars could have a future in Canberra, a more solid one after the Better Place experience, but this episode showed the risks involved in a small market the size of Canberra being too quick off the mark as an early adaptor of new technology.

Canberra has a proven record of conceiving ideas that work and can be sustained. But the proving grounds are often in bigger markets abroad, which can afford to take risks. One such example to emerge from a robotics laboratory at the Australian National University, Seeing Machines, operates in a similar space to autonomous car technology, and went to Europe and then the United States to commercialise its technology.

The company prefers the term crash-proof cars and remains wary of driverless cars, which it believes has too many unanswered questions in various driving conditions, and insurance issues.

The other issue to consider is investments in developing fields such as autonomous vehicles can take decades to pay dividends. Even if, as Mr Coe suggests, the technology will be sufficiently advanced within a few years, there are many legislative hurdles to overcome, as well as thorny insurance, cross-border and supporting infrastructure issues to address.

To support trials in Canberra for autonomous cars, Mr Coe cites the Department of Infrastructure report, Traffic and congestions cost trends for Australian capital cities, which has found that such vehicles could ease congestion on our roads. This might be true, eventually, but does not address the key transport problem facing the ACT: overdependence on cars and roads. 

That same report also says the base-case analyses assume that any elements of autonomous vehicle technology that start appearing on Australian roads over the coming decades will only have a relatively slight impact on overall vehicle travel within the 2030 projection timeframe chosen for the research.

Autonomous vehicles might well prove an effective and viable option for Canberra roads, but the promise of future gains in this area shouldn't be used as a way to justify failure to invest in other much-needed public transport options. There is a risk that if the technology hits the same pitfalls and delays as the electric-vehicle industry has faced, the territory could well find itself in exactly the same position in a decade's time, with nothing to show for its investment.

Canberra's transport challenge is complex, and can be helped with innovation that encourages ride-sharing. Much of the congestion comes from investment in cars at the expense of public transport, as is the case across the world. Allocating more resources to cars might well make this problem worse.

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