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Autonomous vehicles: Reimagining regulation and business opportunities

3 mins  25.10.2017 David Pearce

Autonomous vehicles will no doubt change Australian cities and transport infrastructure, permitting them to grow beyond their current limitations.

However, much of the legal and regulatory work is still to be done.

Autonomous vehicles will no doubt change Australian cities and transport infrastructure, permitting them to grow beyond their current limitations.

Not only will the way we travel be reimagined, but so too will many aspects of modern Australian business. Significant opportunities for new business will open, and challenges to existing ones will be felt.

For instance, at MinterEllison we are supporting clients to introduce drone technology into the market to revolutionise asset maintenance, surveying and inspections. Large and small scale infrastructure, agribusiness and resource projects are now able to access areas that helicopters and satellite images can't get to; whilst being both safer and more cost-effective.

Many business models, from airport parking to long haul freight transportation, stand to be disrupted. Different avenues to generate revenue will emerge, and business leaders will need to be on the front foot. Transport models and land values are likely to change.

Australian regulators, led by the National Transport Commission, are part way through a four year journey to ensure Australia is ready for the predicted widespread adoption of highly automated vehicles from 2020 and beyond.

At present, much of the legal guesswork relating to autonomous vehicles is focused on how to regulate them, and answering the question of who will be held responsible when things go wrong.

Insurance, liability, licensing, accreditation and safety duties may need reworking. Human error is the most common cause of accidents on Australian roads at present. How will that shake up current approaches when vehicle thinking takes over? What will the 'transition' phase look like, with vehicles of varying levels of automation sharing our roads?

Increasing numbers of trials are taking place in the private and public transport space, that will go a long way to building the public's trust in technology. More work needs to be done in understanding how people will respond, and what this means for transportation and our cities. While autonomous and electric vehicles provide a unique opportunity to transform our road funding models, it remains to be seen whether governments will have the political will to take on this challenge.

More and more vehicles with autonomous capabilities will emerge (in sectors ranging from mining to universities and aged care), and regulation will need to keep pace.

New opportunities for the public transport space also abound. Following the lead of South Australia, the New South Wales government has passed legislation to allow the trial of automated vehicles, and is supporting a trial of an autonomous shuttle bus at Sydney Olympic Park. Trials are also occurring in other states and territories, and across the globe.

The work the National Transport Commission and state and territory governments are doing with developing legislation marks key first 'enabling' steps for Australia to keep pace with technology, without stifling innovation.

While we follow work from overseas, Australian challenges are unique, and rules and guides will need to accommodate our lives. Geographical distance, dispersed infrastructure, unique flora and fauna are all distinctive challenges for manufacturers and regulators.

Indicative of the challenge ahead, the National Transport Commission has identified over 700 laws, rules and regulations which will require revision with the coming of autonomous vehicles. This transition phase is particularly interesting.

Despite regulation in Australia still being very much in its infancy, disruptions to business models need to be considered today.

Massive opportunities and risks exist in the logistics and resources space, as jobs are challenged and created while technologies improve and become more of the fabric of day-to-day life. People and goods will need to be moved - but how that looks, how it is regulated, and who is involved will be shaped in the coming years.

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