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Anne Still says regulations will need to change to harness autonomous cars fully. Photo: Gabriel Oliveira

Disruption in motion

Three big changes in the transport industry will revolutionise how Western Australians move around in decades to come.

Within their lifetimes, young Western Australians could witness the end of driving, the end of petrol, and possibly, the end of car ownership itself.

Together, these three dramatic changes to the transport sector would have the biggest impact since the invention of the automobile.

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Already, signs of transformation are emerging.

Amid the looming eventuality of such dramatic upheaval, the state will need to think ahead about how it can take best advantage of the opportunities, according to industry leaders who spoke to Business News.

One example of how this disruption is unfolding is with autonomous vehicles, where WA has good form.

In the Pilbara, big iron ore miners use trucks without drivers, and autonomous drill equipment, while Rio Tinto operates the Auto Haul rail network.


On a different scale, the Royal Automobile Club of WA has been trialling an autonomous bus, the Intellibus, on the South Perth foreshore and in Busselton.

That was only the second autonomous bus trial on public streets in the world, RAC general manager of public policy and mobility Anne Still told Business News.

“There are very few (trials) operating on public roads that allow the public to participate,” Ms Still said.

“That speaks to WA being a leader among leaders in this field.

“It’s widely accepted that the work being done in the Pilbara and other places, for many years now, is world leading.

“It puts WA in a good place in terms of our preparation for these giant leaps forward in autonomous [technology].”

Similar trials are now under way in other states and some cities around the world.

Ms Still said the South Perth trial, which started nearly three years ago, was an opportunity to learn about the technology, give the community a chance to use it, and work with (local) governments to develop a pathway for readiness.

Autonomous vehicles are ranked on a scale from zero to five, with levels one and two including partial automation for systems such as braking.

Level three would include automated lane keeping assistance or emergency braking, while level four would mean full automation in some circumstances, like local roads.

The Intellibus is at level four.

But it’s a long way to level five – complete automation.

“That last 10 per cent (is hard) … we use a lot of visual cues when driving,” Ms Still said.

“It’s using artificial intelligence.”

Driverless

Driverless vehicles could dramatically improve road safety and help alleviate congestion, if managed correctly, Ms Still said.

There was also a risk, however, that congestion would worsen if a large number of vehicles were moving through the road network without passengers.

She said there were hundreds of sections within legislation that needed to change nationally to allow autonomous vehicles to operate on a large scale.

For example, just importing the buses was difficult because they did not have a steering wheel.

“If you look at the WA road code, the word driver is mentioned 988 times,” Ms Still said.

“The way the system is set up at the moment isn’t fit-for-purpose in terms of a world with autonomous vehicles.

“That’s not insurmountable, but governments have a role … preparing a pathway for readiness.”

Other considerations will be insurance, responsibility in the case of an accident, and the ethical decisions that will arise from that.

Then there will be investment required into the network itself, with sensors and communications equipment to make freeways ‘smarter’.

RAC has been using buses manufactured by French company Navya, and more recently bought autonomous cars from that business for a trial at Perth Airport.

Navya also supplied an Intellibus for a second trial in WA, at Curtin University.


Curtin University. Photo: Attila Csaszar

This, in turn, created opportunities for research synergies, including at the university’s co-innovation centre with Cisco, one of 14 Cisco operates in the world.

Cisco lead of Innovation Central Perth, Tom Goerke, said the centre was the first place in the world to trial a new protocol for managing interactions between objects and sensors.

He said further work on autonomous vehicles in WA was under way in Karratha at Fortescue Metals Group’s Future of Mobility Centre.

“We could have autonomous vehicles in Karratha much earlier than what people think,” Mr Goerke told Business News.

“The technology is moving so quickly, regulation and infrastructure are saying ‘How do (we) keep up?’”

He said the potential for driverless vehicles extended to waterways, with the use of autonomous vessels for iron ore exports one possibility canvassed at a recent Pilbara 2050 conference.

Fuel-less

The move towards electric vehicles seems to still be in first gear.

Eighty-one electric vehicles were sold in WA during the first half of this year, while a further 943 hybrid vehicles hit the roads, according to data from the Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries.

Taken together, that’s about 2 per cent of new vehicle sales.

There is evidence that the move to electric cars will pick-up the pace, however.

Several of the big automakers are producing or planning electric vehicles, including VW, Toyota, Nissan and Audi, while businesses such as Tesla started purely as electric car makers.

Market access will no doubt be made easier for electric vehicle producers due to legislative moves in some countries to ban combustible fuel vehicles, with the UK targeting 2040 for such a shift.

In WA, RAC’s Ms Still was confident that electric vehicles would eventually gain traction.

Two contributing factors would be price reductions and continuing range improvements.

A recent forecast had suggested electric vehicles will reach price parity within five years, she said, while range had lifted from around 100 kilometres initially to be more like 800km on a single charge.

There were also efforts under way to introduce charging stations.

RAC built the electric highway network of fast chargers from Perth to Augusta, with 11 charging stations.

Tesla has rolled out about 20 fast-charging stations in WA, while other locations include the Wesley Tower car park in the CBD.

Ms Still said the take-up of electric cars would produce health and environmental benefits.

“We have an enormous challenge around air pollution,” she said. 

“This is becoming more of a priority, certainly a discussion point, for WA.

“As many as 2,500 deaths can be attributed to air pollution in Australia per year.”

Ownerless

The rise of Uber and other ride-sharing services in competition with taxis has opened up a further possibility – on-demand transport.

And the potential extends beyond ordering a car with a mobile application.

A great example is Uber Pool, which has been used in cities including Los Angeles and London for years.


Photo: Attila Csaszar

With Uber Pool, customers who are taking trips on similar routes will share an Uber ride matched by the company’s route optimisation algorithms.

The riders disperse the cost between them, although the routes are less direct.

The service will be trialled in Perth from the end of July.

Another example is Sydney-based Drive My Car, where vehicle owners can rent cars to peers, which recently expanded to Perth.

The idea extends to a concept called ‘mobility as a service’, which is like public transport with an additional dimension.

Users would not even need to own cars.

Instead, they might hail vehicles from a network node using an app. 

Both RAC and the Cisco-Curtin researchers said they were keeping appraised of this developing field.

“We’ve been running a project called mobility as a service,” Cisco’s Mr Goerke said.

“We can collect the information so (the network) can understand the current and future load that will come onto it.”

A bus would be a good example.

“(In Perth) we probably run a large green bus to parts of the network with one or two people on it,” Mr Goerke said.

That’s an inefficient use of resources, but one many of us recognise from experience.

When customers order transport, the computers underpinning the network would instead make a decision about how to most efficiently provide the trip.

In place of a big bus, private ridesharing services could be allocated by the network operator to a route with only a couple of customers at a much lower cost.

“People get a better service and it’s cheaper for the taxpayer,” Mr Goerke said.

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2nd-HBF$1.71bn
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5th↑WAMMCO$380.0m
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