Driverless car safety being tested on Canberra's doorstep
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Driverless car safety being tested on Canberra's doorstep

Tests being conducted in Canberra on semi-autonomous cars will be used to help prevent safety problems with driverless vehicles, like the death of an American women last month who was killed by a self-driving Uber.

Seeing driverless cars on the road may still be a couple of years away but the company Seeing Machines has been testing semi-autonomous cars at a race circuit over the border in Sutton.

More trials of self-driving cars are under way in Canberra and across Australia.

More trials of self-driving cars are under way in Canberra and across Australia.

Photo: Stefan Postles

The $1.35 million trial, funded by the ACT government, is looking at what point a driver of a self-driving car would need to take control of the wheel, such as when road conditions change.

The safety aspects behind autonomous car technology have recently come into focus following the death of an American woman last month, who was killed by a self-driving Uber while she was crossing a road in Arizona.

Co-chair of the Seeing Machines Research Initiative Kate Lundy with ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr at the launch of the trial in 2017.

Co-chair of the Seeing Machines Research Initiative Kate Lundy with ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr at the launch of the trial in 2017.

Photo: Dion Georgopoulos
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Uber has since suspended its autonomous vehicle program in the wake of the death, the first fatality from a self-driving car.

A spokeswoman for Seeing Machines said driver-monitoring technology would be an essential part of the safety measures for autonomous vehicles.

"Overcoming the challenges of reliable driver monitoring is critical in hands-free driving systems to address the need for keeping drivers engaged and prepared to re-take control of the vehicle when required," the spokeswoman said

"With the increase in automation, the role of the driver will change. [The tests] will help us understand when and why a driver should be in control, rather than the automated vehicle, and help manage the transition from one to the other with reduced risk."

Mercedes-Benz Sydney and Melbourne driverless car trial.

Mercedes-Benz Sydney and Melbourne driverless car trial.

Photo: Supplied

While tests are currently under way, Seeing Machines is looking for drivers from the Canberra community as part of the next stage of the trial.

Up to 40 Canberrans will be selected to trial the face-tracking technology.

The Seeing Machines spokeswoman said the results of the trial will be used to support safety initiatives across "multiple transport sectors" including self-driving cars.

Robotics professor at Queensland University of Technology Michael Milford said while self-driving car testing was making strides in Australia, the recent Uber incident had emphasised a greater need for it.

"Humans are pretty good at driving, but if we're not driving most of the time, the jury is still out on whether we're good at taking over [from automated driving] in a matter of seconds," he said.

"Technology in the area is always developing quickly, and the real question is when it's acceptable to expose members of the public to that technology."

Last month, the NSW government announced automated vehicle trials, while still under human supervision, on different motorways including the Harbour Bridge.

Similar technology has also been tested at Adelaide Airport.

Swinburne University of Technology associate professor Hussein Dia said while technology was increasing in the field, there was a cautious approach to regulating the industry.

He said it would take some time for technology to make the leap from self-driving cars where the driver might have to occasionally take over, to full autonomy.

"I don't think in Australia we will have fully automated cars as yet," he said.

"It might give the driver of the car the perception that the car can fully drive itself and the technology doesn't yet know everything.

"We're still relying mostly on the driver and also educating the public about self-driving cars."

Andrew Brown is a journalist at the Sunday Canberra Times. Andrew has worked at the Canberra Times since 2016.