Driverless cars need legal framework, says National Transport Commission

The dream of catching up with soapies or historical romances while driving the kids to school is still a long way off for Australia.

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Australia's road rules watchdog has recommended that drivers behind the wheel of autonomous cars be banned from reading books, checking their phones and watching TV.

Well, that is at least until the states and territories agree to change their road rules to allow drivers to take their hands off the wheel – an important step in the roll-out of cars that can drive themselves.

Many carmakers are starting to paint a picture of an on-road utopia where drivers will be able to switch off driving and instead switch onto books, movies and social media while the car picks its own way along the road.

In light of this, the National Transport Commission today released a set of guidelines it wants the nation’s transport ministers to think about when setting the legal framework in place that will one day allow self-driving cars to ply our roads.

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However the NTC warns that if and when cars with self-driving ability arrive here, until laws are changed a driver will still need to be in full control of the vehicle, including leaving a hand on the steering wheel at all times.

“The human driver of a partially or conditionally automated vehicle should only undertake non-driving tasks currently permitted by the road rules and existing enforcement policies and guidelines, unless or until a new position is developed and agreed ... or an exemption is provided by a road agency,” it says.

It has asked transport ministers to “reaffirm the existing policy position that … The human driver remains in full legal control of a vehicle that is partially or conditionally automated, unless or until a new position is developed and agreed”.

Until this is done, it means an autonomous car owner will fall under the same set of road rules as conventional cars, so they won’t be able to realise any of the benefits the cars will bring, including picking up the smartphone to browse social media or send an SMS message.

Audi A8

German luxury carmaker Audi has flagged it wants a version of its facelifted Audi A8 limousine that is capable of Level Three autonomy, the next big step in self-driving cars that hands some of the work behind the wheel across from the driver to the vehicle, on the world’s roads in 2018.

Level Three autonomy, which introduces some levels of automation for chores such as crawling along in stop-start traffic, will still need the driver as a fallback when the car’s on-board computers can’t deal with a situation, such as heavy rain or if an emergency vehicle is approaching.

That said, the NTC suggests that state and territory governments initially focus on setting the legislative framework to deal with Level Three autonomous cars: cars that currently feature neat tricks such as active cruise control and automatic emergency braking.

Audi A8

According to the NTC, one of the next steps Australia needs to take is to remove the assumption from road rules that a human driver is in control of the car.

It has also flagged that insurance companies will need to change the way they think about assessing third-party insurance claims, which also assume a human and not a computer is behind the wheel of a vehicle.

The NTC has set a target date of May 2018 as the cut-off date for governments to change their road rules to allow automated driving.

The next step for carmakers beyond Level Three autonomy is Level Four, which allows a car to act as though the driver isn’t there except in extreme situations. The top Level Five means the car is capable of driving itself all the time, and the people inside it are just cargo.


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