Caroline Falls interviews Dennis Walsh, chief engineer, at Qld Dept of Transport and Main Roads, on the sidelines of the Fleet Management conference in Brisbane hosted by IPWEA, the Institute of Public Works Engineers Australasia. They talk about an autonomous vehicle trial, mobility as a service, and the impact of the coronavirus. This is an edited version of the interview.
First let’s talk about the trial of the autonomous vehicles you are running in Ipswich. I heard you say that today, 16 March, was the launch of a public trial involving the vehicle. Can you tell us about that — the vehicle, the technology, the public trial?
We developed a Renault vehicle to be highly automated. It’s a level-four vehicle, that means it can drive by itself, but under current laws it needs to have a trained driver. We have been working on this pilot for some time in a consortium with QUT and their partner Vedecom (a French company). We are giving 500 members of the public the opportunity to sit in the vehicle as it navigates itself.
These sort of futuristic talks are always fascinating. A couple of years ago I think predictions for fully autonomous vehicles were even more positive than they are today. What are your views as someone so deeply involved in the space, as to when any fully autonomous vehicles will be operating on some certain roads, and when they might be operating on all roads?
That’s a tough question; looking into the future. One of the things with automation is it’s not failsafe, and certainly the technologies we have seen still rely on the driver to intervene in safety risk situations. I think that situation will probably prevail for some time. We see connectivity playing an important role in making up for some of the shortcomings of technology. I think the broader application of autonomy will probably be constrained in the short term to defined precincts that have a fair level of control over the environment. The widespread deployment of autonomous vehicles is someway off, probably more than a decade off.
You are also a member of the board of ANCAP, the Australian New Car Assessment Program. Tell us about the role ANCAP plays here?
ANCAP has a really important role here as a consumer advocate and a consumer advisor. We assess the technologies that are on offer against test protocols. We rate the vehicles in terms of their safety performance and one of the things we’ve introduced recently is we date stamp that performance, so a five-star-rated car in 2020 will not necessarily be five-star rated car in 2024. As these technologies evolve the vehicles are going to get safer and safer.
Let’s now talk about MaaS — or mobility as a service — another key transport issue that’s really had a lot of momentum up until now — this initial phase of the Covid19 pandemic. How will Maas help key issues of congestion and safety on our roads?
The concept behind MaaS is consuming mobility as a service as the name suggests. For us in government, it’s about how we can enable that environment to exist and thrive. Clearly, the more efficient the use of the transport system, the better outcome we have for the community in terms of emissions and safety. The recent challenges we have got around Covid19 are unprecedented. Will it slow the adoption of Maas? We are in unchartered territory so we will have to wait and see. MaaS doesn’t necessarily involve shared mobility, so it’s going to be interesting. What we are doing from a government point of view is making sure that we do whatever is needed to support the MaaS environment in terms of joining up information sources and data so that people can provide those services — that’s a big focus for us.
I was speaking with fleet people in Switzerland last week and they were saying that this Covid19 could really disrupt the move away from private vehicle ownership, that is it could spur a move back to private vehicle ownership. It seemed that people wanted to control their environment and avoid touching each other, or handrails etcetera. They talked about a rush on rental cars, uptake in bicycle use and walking, and empty public transport vehicles, such as trains. What’s your view. What are you hearing?
People are changing their habits. We are seeing a lot of organisations with policies around social distancing and that’s all understandable given the current threat that presents itself to the world. From a transport point of view we’ll have to respond as we see how this plays out; we are right on the cusp of it in Australia. I’m sure that there’ll be a lot of research that emanates from this. I can well understand people’s current reaction whether that’s increasing the levels of commitment to private vehicle use, or as we are also seeing anecdotally increasing the use of cycling.
I was fascinated to hear about your childhood, with parents who didn’t drive, with a father who was a train enthusiast, and how that may have fostered your interest in transport. Can you talk about that?
I’ve always moved around and interacted with people via transport. Growing up in Brisbane, I was a regular user of the public transport network. I got into cycling, enjoying walking and running, and all those are valid modes in my view. How that’s led me to being chief engineer I’m not really sure, but I must admit when I was young I did take an interest in transport. It’s a fabulous area to work in. I really enjoy it and certainly enjoy events like this where you can talk to people and the allied part of the industry and see what’s affecting them and how we all try to contribute to a more sustainable and safe transport industry.