NFF is behind driverless vehicles

The National Farmers Federation (NFF) says autonomous vehicles could reduce isolation, boost agricultural productivity, and save lives on country roads. Source: ABC Rural News

The House of Representatives Industry, Innovation and Science committee is investigating the potential benefits and challenges involved in taking up emerging autonomous vehicle technology.

NFF rural affairs manager Mark Harvey-Sutton told a committee hearing on Thursday that driverless cars could improve the mental and physical health of rural Australians.

“[They] could enable elderly, ill, or disabled Australians living on isolated properties to live at home for longer, by enabling care providers to safely travel to farms outside the current radius of care provision.

“Driverless vehicles could [also] make rural roads safer, by removing the risks of driver error or driver fatigue during long travel on country roads.”

The NFF’s optimism about driverless vehicles comes with one big caveat: Australia’s notoriously patchy rural telecommunications network will have to be vastly improved before the technology can become a reality for rural Australia.

Citing the driverless vehicles being pioneered in the United States, Mr Harvey-Sutton said Australian farmers were not able to make the most of the same technology because they could not get connected.

Curtin University psychology professor Simone Pettigrew found a generally favourable impression of driverless vehicles among the community. Her survey of about 1,500 people found that Australians believe the technology will benefit people who can not drive, offering them greater independence, the parliamentary inquiry heard.

Australians also expect driverless cars will lead to more time-and-fuel-efficient transportation. On the other hand, respondents did have some concerns about security and the number of job losses that could flow from industries such as long-haul trucking adopting driverless technology.

That concern is very real for regional Australia, where thousands of manufacturing and farm jobs have been lost to automation over many decades. But Dr Damith Herath, from the University of Canberra’s Human Centred Technology Research Centre, said the trucking industry could mitigate that impact in the short term.

He suggested they could set up franchising, which would allow drivers to maintain control and maintenance of their trucks, even if they no longer drove them.

“[Longer term], the past has shown us that [with] any generation of new technology, new ways of managing that job loss is created,” he said.

“Some [new opportunities] that we might not be anticipating might come about in another 10, 20 years.”

For the agriculture sector, more automation of freight would be welcome.

Mr Harvey-Sutton said NFF expected new jobs to be created to replace those that disappeared, both through maintenance of the new driverless vehicles and because increased on-farm productivity flowing from the technology would make it more likely that farmers would employ more workers.

He said farmers are hoping more driverless vehicles will also lead to more efficient, cheaper freight, which will further boost their businesses.

“It could enable farmers to direct their time and energy away from operating machinery,” he said.

More precise application of chemicals, which driverless technology could allow, would lower costs for farmers while also reducing their environmental impact, NFF said.