ONE day it’s a woman being fatally hit by an automated Uber vehicle in the United States, the next it could be a driverless freight train fully-loaded with cattle or grains crashing into a school bus full of children on a public road in regional Australia.
Co-chairman of the Senate Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee and WA Labor, senator Glenn Sterle has concerns about such an accident occurring with the emerging auto-drive technology, in Australia.
Senator Sterle spearheaded an inquiry into national road safety that handed down a report late last year, recommending a number of measures to improve standards.
He felt compelled to speak out after an Uber self-driving vehicle killed a 49-year-old woman in Arizona recently who was crossing the road, sparking an international backlash and debate.
Senator Sterle – a former truck driver who still uses regional roads in WA’s North West on frequent occasion – now has serious questions about the safety and practical implications of the driverless vehicles being used on public roads in Australia in future.
He said driverless trucks and heavy machinery were already being used in off-road transportation in sectors like mining and could have practical application and profitability benefits for use in farming through self-driving autonomous tractors controlled remotely, by farmers away from their paddocks, to manipulate various applications.
But senator Sterle wants to apply the brakes to the technology’s progress, warning there’s no need to implement it at excessive speed for fear of making fatal, irreversible mistakes.
“In all fairness, let’s not fool ourselves, in my home State of WA, automated vehicles and this technology, have been used in the mines for many years,” senator Sterle said.
“Massive iron ore trains in the Pilbara have been running without drivers for 15 years now, easily, with a huge amount of our haulpaks being used, particularly through Rio Tinto mines and FMG which are driverless.
“I get all of that but my concerns are about those vehicles that are on the roads with other users – public roads.
“I understand there is great interest in the farming sector, that while you’re on your own paddocks, you don’t want to be out there at 2am on a tractor when it’s only 3 degrees Celsius, so it can make sense in terms of productivity.
“And there is a view that some automated vehicles can be safer than those controlled by humans which I understand – but not on our public roads.”
Senator Sterle said he felt sorry and empathised with the family of the woman who was fatally hit by an automated Uber vehicle.
But he said the car also had a driver sitting in the driver’s seat to override the vehicle’s controls.
“If it can happen with a driver in there to override it how the hell can Uber or anyone for that matter say that the technology is safe for use on our roads here in Australia, whether they’re in rural or regional Australia or the cities?” he said.
“I can’t find an argument that can convince me this is safe technology.
“We know the technology is around but it’s not 100pc safe.
“Let’s get to the crux of it – it won’t be the little Volkswagen or Toyota ute running around on regional roads – if there’s a request for driverless, automated vehicles these will be freight vehicles.
“I’m in no way convinced and in no way can anyone put to me these vehicles are ready to rock and roll and ready to go.
“We are miles away from winning the hearts and minds of the communities.
“I’d say to all regional road users, it’s bad enough having ‘roos and cattle jumping out at you in the middle of the night, which I had last week in the Kimberley, let alone a fully-laden freight vehicle coming down the road.
“I grew up with Get Smart and The Jetsons (on television) but there is not an ounce in my fibre that thinks automated heavy vehicles or machinery should be used on public roads or at this stage is a good idea and nor will it be for many years to come.”
Senator Sterle said in the US a test-drive in 2016 saw a driverless semi-trailer deliver a full load of beer, without the backup driver, after travelling 120 miles (193 kilometres) across an interstate route with the beer company “bragging” about the “wonderful” result.
“It’d be great to hear feedback from the rest of the truck drivers in Australia, or at least from one single truck driver in Australia who has experience driving on our roads, who may well disagree with me and thinks this isn’t ridiculous,” he said.
“The only thing stopping it at the moment is there’s not the political will to drive head first into an empty swimming pool – the empty pool being ‘let’s go ahead and trial this technology’.
“I think too many voices in Australia would be against this technology.”