“Cleaner cars and transport aren’t just good for the environment – they are cheaper to run”.

So declared Opposition Leader Bill Shorten when announcing Labor’s plans for a cleaner transport future on April 1. The plan included targets for electric vehicles to account for 50 percent of all new vehicle sales by 2030 and half of all new vehicles purchased or leased by the Commonwealth by 2025. It also included up-front tax deductions for businesses who purchase electric vehicles for use in their operations.

The response was swift. Prime Minister Scott Morrison declared that the policy would, ‘end the weekend’, for four-wheel driving enthusiasts and say, ‘see you later’, to the SUV. Employment Minister Michaela Cash declared that the Coalition would, ‘stand by our tradies’, and, ‘save their utes’. The Herald Sun’s Andrew Bolt wrote that the policy ‘seems insane’. 2GB’s Alan Jones declared on April 11 that the evidence against the electric car ‘fiasco’ was ‘damning’. “I’m not telling you how to vote,” Jones told listeners. “I’m just telling you to vote for Australia, for goodness sake”.

As pointed out on the ABC’s Media Watch, however, Labor is not alone in embracing electric vehicles. In its Climate Solutions package announced in February, the Coalition had itself earlier promised to develop a national strategy for electric vehicles.

Behind the political spectacle, however, broader questions arise about how Australia can prepare to capitalise on opportunities presented by emerging transport technologies.

In a recent study, the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering (Applied) spent three years examining the preparedness of different industry sectors to develop, adapt to and adopt new and emerging technologies.

Its final report on April 29 found that Australia was well prepared to accept these technologies from a social, economic and policy viewpoint but has work to do on infrastructure preparedness and skills.

Its recommendations include:

  • Strategies to encourage the adoption of low emission vehicles
  • A new framework to regulate new transport technologies
  • Strategies to encourage the adaption of transport technologies to an Australian setting; and
  • Strategies to develop a qualified workforce to manage the transition to future transport models.

Dr Matt Wenham, Executive Director, Policy at Applied, says Australia faces challenges and opportunities.  With transport accounting for almost one-fifth (19 percent) of greenhouse gas emissions, low emission vehicles and effective transport planning will be important in meeting our Paris Accord commitments. With urban congestion costing around $16.5 billion each year, better transport can unlock economic and productivity gains. With 1,226 people killed on Australian roads during calendar 2018, our country must continue to improve road safety. Autonomous vehicles which eliminate human error will help.

At the same time, Wenham says technology advancement in areas such as energy, digital and data and communications will unlock opportunities to address these challenges through low and zero emission vehicles, connected autonomous vehicles, high-frequency mass transit and intelligent transport systems.

He says Australia must prepare to capitalise on these.

“There are big challenges which are there,” Wenham said.

“We’ve got these new technologies that are emerging in the transport sector that offer fantastic opportunities to address those challenges.”

“That’s really what we want to get at. How do we seize these opportunities and make the most of these technologies? The questions behind that are how ready are we for these technologies and what do we need to be doing to be prepared to take advantage of those opportunities that the technologies might present?”

According to Wenham, transport in ten or fifteen years’ time will differ from today in two areas.

First, more people will travel in low-emission vehicles. These could include electric cars, hydrogen powered buses, or trains which are either electrified or powered by hydrogen.

Beyond that, commuters will take more multi-modal journeys. Under this scenario, travellers may be picked up from home and driven to the station by cars before then travelling most of the way by train, tram or bus. When arriving at the stop closest to their destination, another private vehicle – potentially a driverless car – will take them the ‘last mile’ of their trip.

Using intelligent transport systems, this will be seamless. Smartphone apps will work out optimal routes and tell users which cars, trains, buses or trams to take along with when and where these will pick them up.

To many, he says the switch to low-emission vehicles will also be seamless. Whilst there will be changes in how vehicles are charged and refuelled, the technology will improve to the extent that commuters do not notice significant differences in electric vehicle charging compared with traditional refuelling of cars at gas stations.

According to Wenham, an interesting question surrounds the role of autonomous vehicles. More than likely, he says that in ten to fifteen years’ time, we will see more of these on our roads. A scenario to avoid, he says, involves having more vehicles on the road whereby many who currently use public transport switch instead to autonomous vehicles.

As mentioned above, the AATE report says that Australia needs to do more to prepare our infrastructure along with our workforce and skills to capitalise on opportunities in transport technology.

On infrastructure, Wenham says Australia needs to install the right assets in terms of charging points for electric vehicles (these should be standardised) and communications for connecting self-driving cars.

Moreover, he says Australia needs to develop skills required to enable us to capitalise on the opportunities available. As well as specific abilities in engineering, urban planning and data science, this includes a broader expansion of STEM education across schools.

Asked about the current political debate, Wenham describes a positive and a negative view.

On the positive side, he is encouraged that major parties are talking about this and are recognising the challenges which Australia needs to address.

Less encouragingly, he says the ‘hysteria’ which followed Labor’s announcement reflects both a misunderstanding of where the technology is at as well as a tendency to focus upon where the technology is today rather than where it likely will be going forward.

By 2030, he said, transport technologies will be more advanced compared with today. He points to electric vehicles, where the range which can be covered without needing to be recharged has come from not much five years ago to four or five hundred kilometres for new vehicles nowadays.

Wenham says the importance of preparing for an infrastructure revolution should not be underestimated.

“We are doing quite well in a lot of indicators we are looking at,” Wenham said.

“But we can fall behind quite easily.”

“There are a lot of opportunities to be gained from these emerging technologies. We have to prepare ourselves as a country so that we are ready to take advantage of the opportunities which are offered.”