Australia prepares for autonomous vehicles with draft laws

Transport ministers in Australia have drafted vital legislation to prepare for autonomous vehicles to roam the land down under.

In the National Transport Commission (NTC) policy paper Changing driving laws to support automated vehicles, we get an early look at the legal framework enabling Automated Driving Systems (ADS) to replace human drivers.

NTC Chief Executive Paul Retter said:

“With automated vehicles, there will be times when an automated driving system — rather than a human — will be in control of the vehicle. We need a nationally consistent law to know who is in control of a motor vehicle at any point in time.

Without a change to existing laws or new law, there would be no-one to hold responsible for compliance with our road rules when an automated driving system is in control of a vehicle.”

The question of responsibility is often a topic of debate. Many believe the responsibility should be shifted to the manufacturer to ensure there’s a vested interest in making automated systems as robust as possible.

Current Australian transport law assumes there’s a human driver. "It does not envisage a situation in which an ADS, rather than a human driver, is in control of the dynamic driving task," the paper says.

"Obligations relating to driving and road safety through complying with traffic laws are placed on a human driver, and the human driver is responsible for the consequences of noncompliance.”

With automated systems, an extended form of investigative procedure will need to be in place for accidents. This investigation will need to check for threats such as hacking, or a failure of roadside infrastructure, before assigning blame.

The NTC proposed the introduction of a uniform law to:

  • allow an automated driving system (rather than a human) to perform the dynamic driving task when it is engaged

  • ensure that there is always a legal entity responsible for driving

  • set out any obligations on relevant entities, including the ADS entity, and users of automated vehicles

  • provide flexible compliance and enforcement options.

A total of 11 recommendations are made in the NTC’s paper. Here are some of the highlights:

  • Create a uniform law to ensure automated systems can be authorised for use on the roads, and responsibility is assigned at various levels of automation.

  • Coordinate a national working group with membership from the states, territories, and the Commonwealth, to conduct a legislative analysis.

  • For non-dedicated automated vehicles with manual controls — ensure a driver is available to respond to vehicle requests, or be able to retake control of the vehicle quickly in the event of mechanical failure. This driver must have a valid license for the vehicle and comply with all drug, alcohol, and fatigue obligations.

  • For dedicated automated vehicles without manual controls — clarify no user has an obligation to be ready to drive or take control of the vehicle at any time, and will not be subject to drink- and drug-driving offences.

  • Further recommendations will be made to the council in May 2019 after agreement on relevant elements of the safety assurance system at the November 2018 council meeting.

“This is a considerable change to national road transport laws, to support the significant changes we see coming in transport technology,” Mr Retter said.

The NTC will work closely with road agencies and transport departments to develop the detailed policy recommendations and legislative analysis necessary to establish the new purpose-built national law by 2020.

With investigators determining last week the Uber SUV which caused a pedestrian fatality saw the victim six seconds before they were hit, this draft legislation arrives at an opportune time.

What are your thoughts on the draft autonomous vehicle legislation? Let us know in the comments.

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