By Grenville Ignatius Francis

As automated vehicle technology moves into the fast lane in a number of countries overseas, there seems to be a particular speed bump slowing its progress in Australia: human trust.

According to Associate Professor Doina Olaru, transport researcher, traffic engineer and Head of the Department of Management and Organisations at the University of Western Australia’s Business School, “trust is one of the main barriers for the uptake, deployment [and] development” of the technology.

Associate Professor Olaru has published academic papers in international journals and presented at leading international conferences on topics such as transport planning methods, travel and activity analysis, alternative fuel and vehicle technologies, and environmental and social impacts of transport. She believes the trust issue applies to not just the vehicles but the whole ecosystem.

“Trust is not only in the manufacturer who is producing the technology; this includes trust in the supporting infrastructure, in the telecommunications industry, especially in the reliability of GPS systems and such… it is trust that the government is doing the right thing in terms of the legislation, regulation and safety; trust in insurance companies; trust in not just one machine, but the whole integrated system that supports and enables the functioning of autonomous vehicles within our urban landscape,” she says.

She feels the trust barrier was made even bigger by an incident in San Francisco in the United States earlier this year when a pedestrian was hit by a car with a human driver and flung into the path of a self-driving car, which then ran over her. Thankfully, the woman survived.

The associate professor says while technology has reduced the number of accidents, it is the media that plays up any mishaps. “It’s easier for them to talk about an accident involving an AV than to talk about someone who was drunk or [displayed] negligent [such as texting while driving] behaviour,” she says.

The Guardian reported, that due to the accident, American carmaker General Motors recalled 950 Cruise autonomous vehicles that were transporting passengers without human drivers throughout San Francisco.

The ABC reported another incident where GM’s Cruise AV crashed into a fire truck after failing to give way. This has led to people questioning the benefits and safety of travelling in autonomous vehicles. The report also says autonomous systems are developed and tested against data that reflect the environments they operate in. A testing regime that is questionable here in Australia, according to Associate Professor Olaru.

“It’s been very Mickey Mouse kind of testing where you have a vehicle running at a maximum of 14 kilometres per hour, dedicated lane, and you can run faster than the car. “This is not the real thing – it’s hard to imagine what technology can do unless you give it the chance for the technology to be gradually embedded into the real conditions and people can see what it offers,” she says.

“Australia in general takes a more risk-averse, contemplative approach to new technology,” she says. The associate professor points out the US has more than a million miles of experience and Singapore that is “committed to having an integration of taxi cabs and shuttles and buses. “Without these kinds of advances, we can’t progress,” she says.

She also cites the example of the UK which “has set its own mandate to be at the forefront, it is an aspiration for them to participate effectively into developing this industry. In Australia, we have more regulators and there is very little in terms of facilitating projects for effective participation”.

An interesting observation that adds another layer of complexity to this issue of trusting autonomous vehicles is that while people say they would ride in one, they would think twice about letting their loved ones do so. She says some people are excited about the technology and would like to try but are not sure if they would leave their kids to be driven to school or other activities by themselves.

Moving forward, Associate Professor Olaru believes we need to trial the technology before we market it to a suspicious public. “Trust is built through reciprocity and experience,” she says. The associate professor feels we need to have more trials and more exposure, saying, “a better understanding of the capabilities and the limitations are more likely to [develop that] trust”.

She also notes that more money needs to be invested here in Australia. “Other countries have mitigated distrust by investing a lot in R&D – big investments. “We are counting ours in millions – they are counting theirs in billions,” she says. As far as governments go, the associate professor feels “it’s okay to start small, but you have to continue the journey”.

There is no doubting the many benefits of automated vehicle technology. Safety and convenience, where according to the associate professor “autonomous vehicles offer a level of environmental awareness and responsiveness that human drivers simply cannot match”. Together with what else one could do instead of driving: reading a book, watching a movie or even doing some work – increasing productivity, shortening the working day and bringing new meaning to multitasking.

That is if one can trustingly progress from sitting in the front seat and driving the car to being in the back seat, chauffeured around by a driverless vehicle. In the fast lane of automated vehicle technology.

By Pelican Magazine

Pelican is the second-oldest student publication in Australia and the only independent paper at UWA. If you like having opinions, writing, drawing, and/or free tickets to local events, then Pelican is the place for you! We print six themed issues a year, and run a stream of online content.

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