Driving the future

RACV RoyalAuto magazine

Three technology megatrends are set to shape the way we drive and navigate our roads, and hopefully ease the congestion squeeze.

All of us can remember the last time we caught a green light when driving. That sweet combination of surprise and relief is a potent mix that stays with us.

The only trouble is that, for most of us, the last time we did catch a green light was in February. Or was it 1985?

The roads are groaning under the weight of more and more cars and trucks, and it is costing us a lot of money. Official estimates indicate road congestion increased industry’s operating costs by $16.5 billion in 2015. That’s expected to double by 2030.

On top of that, congestion also aggravates the cost of road trauma and crashes, which is running at $27 billion a year.

Industry and governments are already addressing the problem, and they are looking to three technology megatrends for a solution: intelligent transport systems, autonomous vehicles and connected vehicles. Achieving even some of that potential could save us billions a year.

Going autonomous

Autonomous vehicles are currently generating a lot of headlines. The concept of sitting in a moving car without actually having to drive is both liberating and frightening.

If autonomous cars prove to be viable, the payoff could be enormous. Imagine a world where vehicles do not crash into each other, where there are no fatalities or even road trauma, no drink-driving and no vehicle theft. There’s $27 billion saved right there. Mind you, the smash repair and insurance industries might have to re-assess their business models.

But while many cars now carry several of the systems autonomous cars will need – e.g. electronic stability control, adaptive cruise control, autonomous emergency braking, lane keeping assistance, road sign recognition – a lot more testing is required.

 “We already have autonomous trucks in the iron ore mines in WA (but) they are completely in a controlled environment with no public roads,” says RACV’s Brian Negus. He is managing RACV’s participation in four different trials of autonomous vehicles.

One trial in Melbourne will see a French-made Navya electric bus carry La Trobe University students and staff from the main tram and bus terminal along a set route to the main campus building. Guided by GPS and telemetry, the Autonobus will also pick up and set down passengers at specified stops. The trial began in test-mode in November, and will take trial ‘passengers’ from March.

Professor Majid Sarvi with some of the hardware that will soon be linking our transport modes.
Professor Majid Sarvi with some of the hardware that will soon be linking our transport modes.

Passengers on trial

The La Trobe trial, and other car trials conducted by tollway operators Transurban (CityLink) and Connect East (EastLink), will not only be designed to test the vehicle and the software but also the passengers.

There are several aspects to the La Trobe trial: One is to see whether the vehicle can recognise signs and line markings and test the vehicle’s various sensing and telemetry systems. This might reveal whether vehicle technology or the uniformity of road lines and signs need to improve.

“The second aspect is basically the human interface. How do we react when we are standing or sitting in an autonomous bus or car that is doing its own thing?” says Mr Negus.

There are still issues with the technology, however, because not all sensors and recognition technology can read every type of sign. This is why EastLink and CityLink are conducting trials on their own roads.

“We are aware from initial testing that there are differences in line markings and many signs cannot be read by vehicles.”

While autonomous vehicles will offer a great step forward in safety by eliminating the human error that contributes to crashes, some argue they’ll do little to improve the efficiency of the road network but will just be a bunch of unco-ordinated safety modules making their way around the network.

All about the connection

This is where connected cars and intelligent transport systems come to the rescue.

The number of cars connected to the internet (through the driver’s phone) is growing rapidly and this gives them and their drivers access to real-time traffic conditions so they can choose more efficient routes to their destinations.

The internet connection also means the traffic management centre knows whether the car is stationary or at what speed it is moving. The more cars using the application, the more accurate the traffic information will be.

However, this is once again about moving an individual car around the network. To extend the benefits of intelligent transport systems to every road user and commuter, the control system will need to incorporate and manage data from cars, trucks, trams, trains, motorcycles, bicycles and pedestrians.

It sounds impossible, but Professor Majid Sarvi at the University of Melbourne has set out to prove it can be done.

The university’s school of engineering and Cubic Transportation Systems have established the National Connected Multimodal Transport (NCMT) Test Bed, an ITS “laboratory” that will be based on a six-square-kilometre area of inner Melbourne, mainly the suburbs of Fitzroy, Carlton and Collingwood. The RACV is a partner here, too. It will be the world’s largest ITS trial using public roads and is planned to run for up to 20 years so that the many systems available now and in the future can be tested in the real world.

“We are developing the world’s first, large-scale connected, multi-modal transport system,” Professor Sarvi says.

The technologies cars use to 'read' the road are numerous. Photo: BMW
The technologies cars use to 'read' the road are numerous. Photo: BMW

Putting the smarts in

“An analogy would be like the development of mobile phones into the smartphone. The transport system at the moment is not so smart, so we’re putting the smarts in and making it connected, and then the number of applications you can run would be enormous.”

Work has begun on the NCMT test bed, which will seek to capture data from all road users – cars, trams, buses, cyclists, even pedestrians – in order to make intelligent decisions about traffic flow. Roadside infrastructure will be a key part of these communications.

“You need to be able to connect all of this together because, for example, our objective so far has been pushing more cars through the signals. But our motivation should be getting more people and goods efficiently to their destinations.”

For instance, Professor Sarvi says, a fully connected system would give a bus with 30 passengers at an intersection priority over a tram with 10 passengers.

The reality is the community has invested billions into the road network and, Professor Sarvi says, short of digging expensive tunnels it cannot be expanded except in outer suburbs. The only option is to make better use of the investment we have already made.

‘It has to be just one system’

“So, instead of just running buses or trams or cars or trains, it has to be just one system. The networks need to communicate. That’s the very important thing, as it will give us maximum efficiency.

“In the test bed area we have buses, we have trams, one of the heaviest heavy vehicle corridors in Melbourne, we have lots of pick-up trucks, we have cyclists, pedestrians, we have every­thing that we want. So we can put any solution into the test and look at how they are meshing as a whole system.

“That is what makes this project very exciting.”

The NCMT test bed should also be exciting for Melbourne motorists. It might be their best chance of ever catching a green light again.          

Ian Porter is author of What Happened to the Car Industry? (Scribe)

Written by Ian Porter
November 24, 2017