When the public thinks of innovation, it’s usually in the realm of blue-sky thinking and new inventions. In the world of transport, innovation evokes images of 600 kilometre per hour trains in Japan, or two-person aerial transit pods in Israel; driverless - or maybe even flying - cars.
When he unveils his innovation statement, will Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull be seduced by these notions - or will his innovation statement focus on more pressing needs for innovation in the transport system?
The Commonwealth spends at around $6 billion a year on transport - yet Australia’s transport system today is not all that different to what it was 50 - 100 years ago. Many of the roads, rail lines and ports are the same; vehicles may be different, but the underlying technologies have not changed much.
And the job of our transport network is the same as it’s always been, too: getting people to work reliably and within reasonable times, keeping the costs of freight down, and fostering enjoyable places to live and travel.
Yet one innovation that would make a difference would be to start now on the regulation for widespread use of drones and driverless cars. These technologies are developing quickly, and regulators need to keep up. Drones offer great potential for delivery of goods and conveying information remotely, but also risks to safety of other airborne vehicles, the potential for privacy breaches, and security risks.
Where today individual motorists work out as best they can how to respond to hazards, driverless cars are going to have this baked into their operating instructions, and governments are going to have to regulate this. The scramble for governments to catch up with Uber illustrates that regulation must move quickly to keep up with the new “disruptors”.
A second transport innovation that the Commonwealth could make would be to tighten vehicle emissions standards. Light vehicles produce 10% of Australia’s emissions, and tightening standards on them could prevent 59 million tonnes of emissions between now and 2030. Tighter emissions standards would also improve air quality by reducing particulate matter. A side benefit of having the latest car technology is that it would allow Australia to participate in automotive industry innovation.
Another worthwhile innovation would be for the Commonwealth to establish which Australian port, if any, will be developed to receive the massive 18,000 container mega-ships. Transport infrastructure lasts a long time, and it can be efficient for governments to agree to avoid duplication. To see how hard it is to change path, we need only look at the history of rail in this country. Different rail gauges were identified as a problem at Federation in 1901. It took 94 years before the mainland state capitals were finally joined by one gauge.
A further worthwhile innovation would be for Commonwealth money to fund signalling upgrades for urban rail in the major capitals. On some Sydney lines, the number of trains per hour is only 20 instead of up to 35, due to the ancient signalling system. In Melbourne, signal failures are one of the biggest sources of delays on the system, and some signals with a design life of 35 years are more than a century old. Signalling upgrades would allow much better use of existing infrastructure in networks that are only as effective as their weakest link.
Of course, the Commonwealth does not have direct control over all of this. Railways and ports are largely the responsibility of state governments, and roads are shared with local governments as well. The Commonwealth isn’t even the major funder: its contribution of only around 17% of transport spending - roughly equivalent to local government’s share - is dwarfed by the states’ contribution of nearly two thirds.
But transport innovation is important to the nation as a whole and for anything with a national focus, it is the Commonwealth’s role to lead. So a great use of the innovation statement would be to put the Commonwealth’s $6 billion to work on future-oriented regulation, national coordination of national efforts, and improving the functionality of the infrastructure networks that already exist. It may not sound as much fun as a flying car, but getting the settings right for efficient transport systems can be genuinely innovative.