Caroline Falls interviewed Professor Ann Williamson, Director of University of NSW-based Transport and Road Safety Research Centre, known as TARS, for Fleet Auto News.
FAN: Tell us about the history and role of the IAG Research Centre and how you became involved?
Robert: It started out as the NRMA research centre about 1989. The first thing we ever did was in response to my own car being stolen. We rated cars for their anti-theft security. It’s become an international standard now.
FAN: What are some of the projects you are presently working on?
Robert: We are an active member of RCAR — an association of 22 of the world’s insurance research centres. We have a number of working groups. One’s a damageability group looking at reducing damage costs. Car companies put a lot of store in that because if a car is expensive to repair, it will be expensive to insure and that’s going to impact a fleet’s costs. Also, it benefits the insurer to keep our product more affordable: if you keep insurance low you will have more people affording it.
A lot of people don’t realise how involved insurers are with car design. RCAR developed a head restraint test that’s now in place with ANCAP. There’s also a 10 km/h test that’s used to test bumpers. Another group has developed the autonomous braking criteria that’s part of the EuroNCAP rating system. We are working towards having a significant involvement in the development of autonomous cars. IAG has joined the Australian Driverless Vehicle Initiative (ADVI). We are hoping to bring to the table what we know about crashes and driver behaviour.
FAN: Do you think Google’s ambition to have fully autonomous cars widespread by 2020 is optimistic?
Robert: People are looking a lot further down the track than that. It is going to be a long learning process. Even cars that are close to being fully autonomous now have a long way to go. For a car to fully replicate the decision making that even someone inexperienced makes is a challenging task in terms of software — to determine whether that’s a human or a garbage bin in front of the car!
FAN: What are some of the biggest contributions to reducing road carnage in Australia over the last decade? And, what will help cut the road toll in the next decade?
Robert: The crash performance of the car is generally credited with about 70 percent of the improvement. Crashes that weren’t survivable in the 1980s are now cases of walking away from the car with a bit of a headache. It’s largely to do with the design of the car, restraint systems, using exotic materials like high-strength steels and allowing the car to crumple in a certain way. Into the future, driver-assist technologies will improve overall crash safety.
However, there are many things we need to address in the driverless vehicle before we allow thousands of them on the road. Lane departure warning and lane keep assist is one grey area in this country. It depends on how good the lane markings are and whether you are driving into the sun because that can dazzle the cameras.
FAN: How engaged is the fleet industry in driving safety?
Robert: Some fleets have played a big role in insisting their cars having certain safety standards in the future. The more advanced ones realise the benefits of keeping their employees safe. If a car gets rear-ended, someone without a proper head restraint could be weeks off work.
A safer vehicle means less time off work for their workers and that affects the cost of running your business. A lot of fleet managers also understand they are a key source of vehicles for the used car market. They know that a lot of first-time car buyers buy a used fleet vehicle and that they have a social obligation to feed safe vehicles into the mainstream. They understand it speeds up the process of getting the technology out and improving the car population.