Automated vehicles offer a plethora of potential benefits, but what infrastructure do local governments need to update to accommodate them?
Australia is on the cusp of a transport revolution, according to a research paper produced for the Victorian Government.
Autonomous vehicles present the potential for significant economic benefits, including fewer road accidents, increased productivity, a reduction in congestion and increased lane capacity.
The technology could even eventually see a significant rise in transport as a service and lead to a shift away from privately owned vehicles.
Preparing for the automated future will require upgrades to infrastructure now to accommodate for the future, and governments and the private sector have a role to play, according to recommendations put forward by Infrastructure Victoria.
The statutory authority estimates up to $1.7 billion will need to be invested into upgrading mobile networks and around $250 million to improve line markings on roads.
Automated vehicles use camera vision systems to detect, read and interpret roadside traffic signs and line markings in order to follow road rules and systems. However, an Austroads report on Automated Vehicles finds early reports of traffic sign recognition (TSR) systems have had difficulties reading Australian signage.
A key issue facing the technology was the installation and maintenance of signage. TSR systems performed well when dealing with standard speed signs in testing, but the vision systems could not handle significant variations to a core standard at this current stage of development, the report finds.
It adds TSR systems rely on signs being correctly located and maintained so that visible light and colour can be captured by the camera, which are not currently considered in maintenance guidelines.
While Australia generally features a standardised road signage system, the Austroads report says the responsibility of regulation and enforcement is left to the states, territories, and in many cases, local governments.
Dr. Allison Stewart, Project Director at Infrastructure Victoria, says the task of ensuring traffic signs and line markings are upgraded for automated vehicles is challenging for local councils.
“Funding for councils is mostly derived from local rates, charges and grants from the state and federal governments, though each council’s proportion of funding can vary,” she says.
“Rural councils tend to have significant road networks and lower revenues, with urban councils encountering the opposite scenario. For example, the Shire of Buloke has a road network of 5313 kilometres while the City of Stonnington’s is just 260 kilometres.
“Single, solid line marking costs on average $1600 per kilometre in Victoria, not accounting for traffic management and associated support costs, which could double the estimated costs. This means the price of updating line marking is likely to be unattainable for local authorities to realistically undertake on their own,” Dr. Stewart says.
Signs that are simple and straightforward tend to be easier for automated vehicles to interpret. Speed signs with conditions, for example school zone operating hours, can be misinterpreted as static regulatory speed signs, with the conditions not properly observed.
Placement of signage is also important, as the vehicle’s sensors will have different lines of sight it needs to draw, which means potential obstructions will need to be managed properly.
Electronic signs can also present challenges for TSR systems, as the refresh rate of the signs and variability of pixel illumination can vary between brands and designs. Potholes, cracks and faded line segments also can cause issues for sensors, as automated vehicles depend upon clear markings to stay within the confines of the lane.
One challenge automated vehicles present is understanding the likely timeframes for their widespread rollout and uptake.
As the technology is still in the development stages, many of its effects on local councils are unclear.
A number of councils and the Municipal Association of Victoria (MAV) have had early discussions with the state government about how automated vehicles will be trialled.
Mary Lalios, MAV President, says road markings fit for automated vehicles are not currently present on a large majority of Victoria’s local road network.
“Improving local infrastructure on roads would need to be factored into council’s future road asset management plans or similar policies.
“Victoria’s Road Management Act specifically says that there is no duty on road authorities to upgrade a road, or to maintain a road to a higher standard than the standard to which the road is constructed,” she says.
“There is good reason for this provision, given the limited resources of councils in comparison to the extensive size of the road network.”
In addition to the increased cost burden, councils also face potential complications with infrastructure and road planning, as the vehicles could have significant effects on buildings such as carparking facilities.
Ms. Lalios says councils will need to collaborate with the state to develop guidelines to ensure there are consistent and clear communications.
“Councils will play a key advocacy role in the acceptance of this technology in local communities and can help to mitigate public concerns,” she explains.
“The MAV will stay engaged with this work while collaborating with the state government and VicRoads to develop an automated driving system permit scheme in the future, to be managed by VicRoads.
“This collaboration will inform future policy areas and consultation with councils to complement the research being undertaken by Infrastructure Victoria.”