NTC submission: Clarifying control of autonomous vehicles

Wednesday, May 31, 2017 by Rhonda Locke


Our understanding of the discussion paper “Clarifying control of automated vehicles” is to resolve issues of control relating to automated vehicles. Determining who is in control, what it means to have ‘proper control’ and how it will apply to automated vehicles, and the interaction between enforcement agencies and automated vehicles. In clarifying these issues there will be greater certainty with road rules, traffic laws and accident and insurance liability and risks. 

We believe there needs to be a collective approach, regardless of the individual vehicle features, as there are overarching safety concerns. Some vehicles require input from drivers to continue driving in autonomous mode, but currently they do not require any evidence-based acknowledgement of a person’s alertness level. Our position is that regardless of whether the automated function or the person is in control, the driver should be monitored for gaze direction and alertness/drowsiness and this is even more important when the automated function is engaged because the driver will be experiencing cognitive underload, and will be more likely to be in a drowsy state.  

Australia no longer manufactures automobiles. Given our small population, we will import cars and they will come with standards that we will need to adhere to rather than mandate our own. We will therefore need to keep abreast of the technology changes in vehicles to be sold in Australia, before they enter the market, but ensure we embrace technology monitoring not just the vehicle’s environment, but the state of the driver also.

Response to Question 2

We do agree national enforcement guidelines should clarify issues of control and proper control based on SAE International Standard J3016 Levels of Driving Automation. As presented in a previous submission, Optalert has determined the alertness levels required for each of the SAE automated vehicle classifications. We believe control and proper control should be enforced based on the relevant alertness level for each classification as per Figure 1 Below.    

Figure 1.

Response to Question 3

For the purposes of enforcing proper control, we do believe there is value in grouping levels of driving automation according to whether vehicles are capable of automated operation. As per Figure 1 above, levels up to and including Level 4 require the driver to remain alert in some or all conditions and this requirement needs to be taken into account through real-time monitoring.

Response to Question 4

We believe the human driver should remain in control of a vehicle with partial or conditional automation and they should be objectively measured as to their capability of performing relevant tasks. If this measurement is not in place, the automation should not be able to pass to the human driver, as this creates significant danger to the vehicle passengers and those sharing the road.

As mentioned in a previous submission, ‘autopilot’ has one key function: it removes the need for a driver to be actively engaged while a vehicle is moving. However, according to the levels of autonomous driving listed in Figure 1, classifications named as level one, two or three still require a driver to be alert and aware of their surroundings. In an urban environment when drivers are in direct control of a vehicle, they are constantly checking for traffic signals, predicting the behaviour of other drivers, and shifting their vision between the road, other cars, pedestrians, mirrors, and the dashboard.

All these actions increase the cognitive load and can help keep the driver alert, but autopilot removes the need to do these things, and that can lead to cognitive underload. The natural drowsiness state, based on how much sleep the driver has had, is now in danger of dominating.

In an instance where autopilot needs to hand control back to the driver, it’s likely that something has occurred that the autopilot cannot handle. It might be the software has lost track of lane markings or there is an upcoming obstacle that it cannot identify or safely avoid. At this exact moment, the driver needs to be alert and ready to take back control. But, if the driver has been subjected to a prolonged period of mental underload, they may experience signs of drowsiness, which means reaction times are impaired during a period where they need to be immediate.

If there was a way for an autonomous vehicle to detect if a driver was alert and capable of taking control of the car, then different actions could be taken. For example, if the driver was asleep, the car could execute a controlled stop and alert the driver to wake up before an emergency occurs. If the vehicle could detect that a driver is showing the early signs of drowsiness, it could become more responsive and take earlier action in instances where control needs to be returned to the driver.

Response to Question 5

Similarly to our response to Question 4, we believe the human driver should have obligations as supervisor of the vehicle, with an ongoing objective measurement of their capability to perform driving tasks up to and including Level 4, when and if required. 

Response to Question 6

Drowsiness affects an individual’s ability to react to a situation. It must be understood that drowsiness is not a binary condition and that differing levels of drowsiness will impact on the driver’s ability to resume control. There is a particular concern when their activity prior to the resumption of control has a low cognitive load.

Level 4 should require that the driver not exhibit a level drowsiness above a threshold where this ability to resume control is compromised. Scientifically-validated measures of drowsiness are possible, and by continuous monitoring of the driver, a safe threshold can be established and should be enforced. We therefore recommend in the table below the suggested indicator of proper control should include the driver having their eyes open, appropriate gaze direction and not displaying symptoms of drowsiness.

Additionally, if the driver is not required to be in the driver’s seat, this would surely severely inhibit their ability to quickly take control, so we would suggest this should be changed to “Yes”.


Thank you once again for the opportunity to make a submission on this important issue. We remain committed to the safety of all public and private roads and will continue working toward an environment where drowsiness is recognised as measurable for all drivers whether in control or ready to take control of a vehicle.


Scott Coles

Dr Murray Johns


Founding Director




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