Opinion article

Australia has work to do on transport technology infrastructure

The transport sector will be one area significantly disrupted and revolutionised by technological transformation. But is Australia ready to capitalise on new transport technologies? Dr Matt Wenham reports on findings of a new report from the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering.

The first petrol engine car in Australia hit the streets of Melbourne in the closing years of the 19th century. In the 120 years since, the internal combustion engine (ICE) came to dominate mobility in Australia, playing a key role in the industrialisation of the Australian economy. In 2018, there were almost four million ICE vehicles on Australian roads. As the saying goes, in Australia the car is king.

With the benefits that these vehicles brought, however, came a darker side. Urban congestion is estimated to cost Australia $16.5 billion per year, a figure that is projected to almost double by 2030. Emissions from the transport sector account for about one-fifth of Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions and are on the rise.

And although significant advances in safety have been made over the last few decades, over 1000 Australians still die on our roads each year. So while transport is a key enabler for the Australian economy, significant challenges remain in dealing with sustainability, productivity and health.

Thankfully, new technologies could provide some of the solutions. The rapid advancement of digital technologies across all sectors of the global economy has resulted in an extraordinary period of change.

With Australia’s geographic isolation and long distances between large urban centres, the transport sector will be one area that is both significantly disrupted and revolutionised by this technological transformation.

New technologies are emerging in the areas of digital and data, communications, sensing and spatial, and energy. In the transport sector, these technologies will see deployment on platforms such as low and zero emissions vehicles (LEVs), connected autonomous vehicles (CAVs), high frequency mass transit and intelligent transport systems (ITS).

Utilised effectively, these platforms have the potential to transform the Australian transport sector and help achieve some significant progress in reducing emissions, moving people and freight more efficiently, and reducing deaths and serious injuries.

The Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering has undertaken a major 12-month study to look at the Australian transport sector’s readiness to adapt, adopt or develop these emerging technologies.

The Academy is an independent think tank that comprises the leaders in the fields of technology and engineering, who gain Fellowship to the Academy in a highly competitive process. The Academy is one of Australia’s four national Learned Academies, with a 900-strong Fellowship from industry, government and research organisations, as well as academia.

The transport study is part of a larger project to look at technology readiness across a number of Australian industry sectors, with a view to informing policy decisions that will help prepare our industries and communities for the oncoming wave of technological disruption.

The Academy’s report has examined transport technology readiness across five parameters – infrastructure, skills, social, economic and commercial, and policy and regulatory. Our analysis also shows that Australia is performing well on a number of readiness indicators and is well placed to capitalise on the coming technology revolution.

However, with technology developing at a rapid pace and competitor countries investing and acting strategically, Australia needs to ensure we also make smart, strategic decisions to keep pace with the technological frontier. In particular, Australia has more work to do to prepare our infrastructure for LEVs, high frequency mass transit and ITS, and to develop the skills needed for the introduction of LEVs, CAVs and mass transit.

The Academy makes four key recommendations to help industry and government prepare for the new technology platforms. Importantly, we need to implement mechanisms to drive a widespread shift towards low emission transport options, which should include a national target and associated regulatory mechanism to drive the uptake of LEVs, and the increased use of LEVs in government and commercial fleets.

Although the current federal election debate over electric vehicles has been somewhat hyperbolic, the fact that both major parties are seriously looking at the role of LEVs in our national transport mix is an important development.

Other recommendations focus on flexible and adaptable regulation of new technologies, the need to adapt new technologies to Australian environments, and preparing the workforce for a transition to future transport models.
Failure to be prepared will risk a decline in many aspects of our Australian way of life and society. For example, inadequate planning for population growth and the spread of urban centres could significantly impede the mobility of passengers and freight in both urban and regional areas.

This could increase congestion and vehicle-related emissions, lead to a deterioration in health, safety and security, and negatively impact productivity and the cost of living. In this early phase of the transition, it is critical that Australia identifies what we want for our society, what action government and industry need to take, and how this will translate to a transport sector for the future.

The internal combustion engine played a key role in shaping the 20th century. It’s important that Australia prepare itself now to take full advantage of the technologies that will shape the 21st.

The Academy’s report Shifting Gears – Preparing for a Transport Revolution is available on the Academy's website. 
About the authors

Matt Wenham

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Dr Matt Wenham is Executive Director, Policy at the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering. Matt leads the Academy’s policy research and international programs. He was previously Senior Policy Associate at the Mitchell Institute for Health and Education Policy. Before this, he worked in the USA as Associate Director with the Institute on Science for Global Policy, and as a research fellow at the US National Institutes of Health. Matt holds a doctorate from the University of Oxford, where he was a Rhodes Scholar.

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