Victoria paves the way for driverless vehicles

| February 27, 2018

Legislation paving the way for trials of driverless cars to begin on Victoria’s public roads has been passed by the state’s parliament as competition hots up between Australia’s states to become the nation’s hub for autonomous transport technology.

Amendments to Victoria’s Road Safety Act were unanimously supported by both major parties and the crossbench and passed uncontested through the upper house of Parliament last week.

The legislation establishes the necessary regulatory framework for automated vehicle trials on Victorian roads, clarifying the legal responsibilities of those conducting such tests and outlining sanctions for infractions of the rules.

The state’s Minister for Roads Luke Donnellan welcomed the legislation as “historic”, claiming that “Victoria is at the forefront of autonomous vehicle technology and these changes will allow our best and brightest to continue to drive transport innovation”.

He argued that “Automated vehicles are the future of road safety – that’s why we’re investing in trials and giving researchers better access to Victorian roads.”

The new framework is based on the long standing permit scheme for learner drivers, allowing VicRoads the ability to grant permits to individuals or organisations to run a trial of driverless vehicle technology.

To obtain a license, an applicant must provide details of the pilot project and develop a safety management plan for it. The legislation also states that the legal burden for any accidents – or complications with the trial – will fall on the legal entity responsible for the trial.

The applicant must also demonstrate that appropriate safety management mechanisms will be in place, and a human supervisor must be on hand, either inside or outside of the vehicle, just as a human learner driver must be accompanied by a licensed driver.

However, once an automated vehicle demonstrates that it could drive safely, the authorities have the ability to remove the requirement for human supervision.

The amendments also give Victoria Police the power to impound a driverless vehicle if it is being used without a permit, or in breach of a permit, and includes sanctions for this misuse.

The legislation ensures Victoria complies with the guidelines on autonomous vehicles testing on public roads released by the National Transport Commission last year.

“This is a very straightforward bill in the sense that what it is doing is establishing a framework of permits and controls around automated vehicles,” Coalition MP David Davis said in Parliament.

“It removes a number of unnecessary regulatory barriers for trials and gives legal certainty for trials so that insurance cover is available during these trials in the event of an accident or injury.”

“It is one of those bills on which we say the government is heading in the right direction. We all see the potential and the opportunity for automated vehicles, and we look forward to seeing how that will play out in the future.”

States jostle to attract driverless cars

Victoria has now followed in the footsteps of South Australia and New South Wales in introducing legislation to pave the way for driverless vehicle technology tests.

South Australia became the first state in Australia to pass similar legislation in 2017, requiring organisations to apply directly to the transport minister and meet certain insurance benchmarks.

New South Wales followed suit by allowing a two-year driverless bus pilot, while Western Australia is currently trialling an electric driverless shuttle buses and autonomous taxis.

Victoria and South Australia are vying to become the main hub for driverless vehicle technology in Australia, and the new laws in Victoria are designed to attract companies to conduct testing in the state.

Mr Donellan argued that Victoria’s approach offers the way best way ahead. “Some jurisdictions are providing for trials by granting exemption from safety laws. However, this is a problematic approach that could create uncertainty in enforcing any breaches of permit conditions,” he said.

“Victoria’s approach does not diminish obligations and protections – it re-allocates accountabilities from the driver to the parties trailing the vehicles. “This bill demonstrates the Victorian government’s commitment to supporting the development of emerging technology and fostering innovation in the transport sector.”

There are already trials of semi-autonomous cars on EastLink and other freeways around Victoria.

While the Victorian Greens supported the bill, MP Samantha Dunn urged consideration of associated societal issues as well as the technology itself. “The Victorian government needs to have the foresight to ensure our automated vehicle regulatory framework is not solely focused on safety and on-road interactions,” Ms Dunn said.

“We need to ensure that at a macro level we ensure automated vehicles help improve the running of our transport system and do not further clog up our streets,” she said. “The promise of automated vehicles in reducing deaths and injuries on our roads is significant, but accidents will happen as no algorithm is perfect and no machine learning system is infallible.

“We therefore need a robust regulatory framework for the testing phase of automated vehicles and one that we can evolve into a full-scale management regime once vehicles are allowed onto the broader road network.”