Australian govts agree on provisional driverless car rules

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Australian govts agree on provisional driverless car rules

Fully autonomous vehicles not expected until after 2020.

Australia’s federal, state and territory transport ministers have agreed to a suite of national policies that will guide Australian road rules through the journey to the widespread adoption of fully driverless cars.

The National Transport Commission is not expecting driverless cars to hit the mainstream until after 2020.

Australian governments have been waiting on the opinion of the NTC - which has been conducting a comprehensive review of road rules and stakeholder concerns over the past year - before they start amending their driving regulations, so as to avoid patchwork approach to traffic legislation.

The commission has now received the green light from federal, state and territory ministers to go ahead with 24 new policies that iron out some of the legal shortcomings with driverless cars.

For the time being, Australian governments have jointly committed to an existing policy consensus that a human driver has full legal liability for a vehicle, even if it is “partially or conditionally” automated.

Human drivers must also not undertake in-car activities currently banned under Australian road rules, like speaking on a mobile phone, even when a car is effectively driving itself.

Under the NTC’s rationale, this buys road authorities a few more years to nut out a new regime before fully automated vehicles become commonplace.

It has identified a raft of legal grey areas that will need to be tackled before this time, including:

  • If a driverless car crashes, or receives a ticket for an infringement, how does a driver obtain the necessary data from the manufacturer to prove the incident was caused by a malfunction?What incentive does a manufacturer have to share data that might render them liable?
  • Australian road rules currently require a driver to have at least one hand on the steering wheel while the car is moving. What happens to enforcement when this demand becomes redundant?
  • Can a driver still be considered ‘in control’ of a parking vehicle if they are standing at close range with the ability to stop the car by remote control?
  • What if the vehicle parks itself in a multi-level carpark based on directions of a human who is no longer in sight of the vehicle?

One of the NTC's first priorities is to get state and territory road authorities to pick out any provisions in existing transport laws that could stop them from issuing exemptions that would enable on-road driverless trials.

The next cab off the rank will be for governments to jointly rethink what the terms “driver” and “proper control” mean in the context of roads legislation, to ensure all states and territories are on the same page.

In the longer term, the NTC has advocated for a liability scheme that places the onus on the manufacturer of an automated driving system to defend against liability for a road accident, “given that this entity will hold the data to demonstrate who was in control of the vehicle at a point in time”.

It also said the Commonwealth and states should regulate where and when law enforcement entities are able to access tracking data on autonomous cars, in a way that balances safety with privacy.

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