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Standing Committee on Infrastructure, Transport and Cities
01/12/2015
Role of smart ICT in the design and planning of infrastructure

BRADLOW, Professor Hugh Simon, Chief Scientist, Telstra Corporation Ltd

Evidence was taken via teleconference—

Committee met at 17:47

CHAIR ( Mr Alexander ): I welcome the representative of Telstra to provide evidence today. Although the committee does not require you to give evidence under oath, I should advise you that this hearing is a legal proceeding of the parliament and therefore has the same standing as proceedings of the House. I invite you to make a brief opening statement, if you wish, before we proceed to discussion.

Prof. Bradlow : Thank you. I am sorry, we seem to have a lot of echo on this line.

Mrs PRENTICE: You might be getting feedback. We are fine at our end, unless it is too annoying for you.

Prof. Bradlow : It is pretty off-putting. Would it be possible to turn the volume down on your end a bit?

Mrs PRENTICE: What does that do?

Prof. Bradlow : It should reduce the echo.

CHAIR: Is that better? They have turned it down.

Prof. Bradlow : Actually, it is still echoing, but I will persist. Do not worry as, hopefully, it will not be too bad. If I could make a quick statement as I would like to emphasise the point that we made in our paper about technology change. I think there is recognition that the rate of technology change is accelerating significantly. The key requirement for all sectors of our economy in the next 10 to 20 years is going to be extremely fast adopters of that smart ICT technology. The industries that adopt it fast will be the winners in this new world and those that do not will obviously fall behind very quickly. With an accelerating rate of change it is very easy to get off the pace and stay off the pace for a long time.

In our submission we talked about the impact on the transport system and on the health system, but I would also like to emphasise that there are other sectors of the economy that are equally important like energy generation and distributed energy groups which are going to play a major role. Those are all areas that are going to be significantly impacted in the short term and that is why we want to emphasise the importance of technology adoption.

CHAIR: Thank you.

Mr THISTLETHWAITE: Thank you, Professor Bradlow. In relation to autonomous vehicles, how soon do you think, realistically, they will be in Australia and being used on our roads? What does government need to do to prepare for that change?

Prof. Bradlow : They will certainly be on our roads at the beginning of the next decade. I think it is realistic to assume that, by the end of the next decade, we could turn every car into an autonomous vehicle because the technology to actually make cars autonomous is falling in price very rapidly. You could also use aftermarket kits to turn existing cars into autonomous vehicles. The returns for the economy will be enormous. It will save, in my estimate, about 1,000 lives a year. It will have a dramatic impact on reducing the requirement for road infrastructure. In terms of what government can and should do there are basically two opportunities. The first is to put in place the regulations to allow them to be used and the second is to move towards a situation, again through regulation, that would make all cars autonomous by a target date. The maximum benefit will be accrued when the cars are all autonomous.

Mr THISTLETHWAITE: Thank you.

Mrs PRENTICE: Hugh, with smart ICT, do believe that government should actually mandate smart ICT for projects we fund? How do we collect and store that securely? Do we have the capacity now or should we look at government doing that?

Prof. Bradlow : Yes, I do believe that governments should look to implement smart ICT in all their projects. We should be looking at regulations that enable it and also prevent it from being disabled by entrenched interests. Do we have the capacity to store their data privately and securely? I believe we do, and I do not believe it needs to be done by government. Organisations such as Telstra are quite capable of doing that, but government could do it.

Mrs PRENTICE: Thank you.

Ms MARINO: One of the things you touched on was that the US is taking the lead in developing key standards in relation to establishing data standards. We have heard throughout the inquiry about work that the UK government has done as well in this space. I wonder whether you would care to elaborate on what the US has done and what their government has done?

Prof. Bradlow : The US government has established the data.gov site in which they have put a lot of publicly available data, in a consistent and available format with the appropriate interfaces, to allow developers to access that data and incorporate it into their applications. The other thing I think they have done that is significant is that, as part of Obamacare, they have mandated the use of electronic health records. I am starting to see the impact of that in terms of the health system. For example, they are currently setting up a system where, when a patient phones the doctor, the phone system actually validates that that doctor is entitled to look at that patient's record, and it will pop that up on the doctor's iPad, so in the conversation, the doctor has the information immediately available to him or her. It is those types of interventions which start to make the system more efficient.

Mr TAYLOR: Coming back to transport, you talk a lot about it in the submission. What are the implications of autonomous vehicles if they move at the pace you are saying, and I am seeing lots of signs that they are, for rail transport and other forms of traditional public transport?

Prof. Bradlow : I do not believe it removes the need for mass transit. In fact, if you look at the OECD model that they did of Lisbon, they showed that the maximum benefit is accrued by combining what they call 'taxibots' which is effectively a self-driving car that is also a shared vehicle, a taxi, and combining that with mass transit. By doing that they could actually reduce the rush hour congestion by 65 per cent in Lisbon, according to the modelling. I do not believe it obviates the need for mass transit, but I think it compliments it with a more convenient system for the ends of the mass transit system and obviates the need for individuals to own vehicles. By individuals not only owning vehicles, you not only get other benefits, but you also free up an enormous amount of parking space in urban environments.

Mr TAYLOR: Doesn't it become a sort of mass transit in its own right?

Prof. Bradlow : It is effectively a mass transit, yes.

CHAIR: I am sorry. We have a division and will be a back as soon as we can.

Proceedings suspended from 17:57 to 18:12

Mr VAN MANEN: Professor Bradlow, with the issue of technologies and the current capability of the technology, I would be interested to get some understanding from you as to the limitations that exist at present, how you see those limitations being overcome and also how we deal with the issue of obsolescence and ensuring that the data that we collect today can still be properly used in 10 or 20 or 30 years time. Obviously, these big infrastructure projects have very long life spans, and there is not a huge amount of value in collecting an enormous amount of data now and not being able to use it in 15 or 20 years time. I would be interested in your comments on that.

Prof. Bradlow : Do you want to talk about a particular area of technology or the whole sweep of ICT?

Mr VAN MANEN: Well, particularly in relation to smart ICT that we are using for mapping of buildings. A lot of the discussion during the inquiry has been to do with BIM modelling and using that as a foundation for collecting the spatial and other data necessary to manage our infrastructure—both roads and rail, but also buildings and how we keep that information relevant so that it can continue to be used into the future.

Prof. Bradlow : I think that the answer to that lies in what are known as big data technologies, which is the ability to collect data in multiple formats and structures and then perform analyses using techniques such as search or machine learning or artificial intelligence. First of all, because of the rate of change of data growth, you can pretty well collect all data and just keep it. You made the point about obsolescence. With time, electronic formats will change but there is no reason why you cannot migrate the data into new formats. Because these big data technologies do not rely on particular data structures, they can deal with unstructured data and you do not have to have data in a particular format that means it cannot be used in the future. The technologies for analysing data are becoming smarter and will be able to deal with the previous versions of the formats.

Mr GILES: Thank you for your submission. I was hoping to draw out a couple of aspects of it: in particular, when you talk in 4.2 about creating an appropriate regulatory environment, are you really just talking about removing regulatory impediments or are you looking at a different architecture of regulation?

Prof. Bradlow : I think it is a combination of both. There will be resistance to the introduction of some of these technologies—for example, in the power generation space, the combination of solar plus battery is going to become cheaper by the end of the decade to produce a unit of electricity than is coming out of a coal fired power station. But there are significant vested interests in current coal generation technology, and the regulation has to address those vested interests and existing interests as well as enabling the new technologies to come on stream. The regulation is an enabler and a disabler, depending on how it is done.

The other thing that governments can do, as I say, is encourage adoption. Governments can set lighthouse goals that would become national objectives—for example, having every car self-driving by the end of next decade is the sort of thing you could think of that would fall into that category.

Mr GILES: I have one other matter I would not mind drawing you out on: in 4.3, you talk about breaking the nexus between work and place, which is a really important conversation, particularly for those of us who represent outer suburban electorates. I am concerned though that, in promoting telecommuting as a goal of itself, we do not walk away from some of the benefits of agglomeration. Do you have any thoughts in that regard or whether perhaps I am reading the submission with a bit more of a gloss than I should?

Prof. Bradlow : I am not saying you are reading it with more gloss. I think that this is human resources issue, and there are some environments where you need to have people together and some where you do not in some jobs and roles. The opportunity of course lies for those who are not mobile and cannot get into particular places. So the technology enables the disabled for starter. As you can see, I am actually living what I say: this is my office and it is not perfect, as you can tell from some of the audiovisual problems we have encountered. However, the technology is improving very rapidly and a lot of those disconnections that occur from separate people will be overcome as the technology gets better definition, lower latency and there is the ability to spread multiple people across the wall. You might have a room with multiple screens, with different people spread on it, so that I could see everyone in the committee at the same time. That technology will improve dramatically over the next 10 to 15 years, and some of the industry impediments like standards and land grabs by various companies will be overcome and interworking will become much more possible. I do not think it is an all or nothing situation. Nothing in our papers suggests an all or nothing situation, but there is a steady movement of the needle from one side to the other.

Mr GILES: Thank you very much, Professor Bradlow.

CHAIR: Professor Bradlow, could I just talk to you briefly about transition, because often there is new technology and there are new ideas but we do not know how to get from where we are to where we want to be, and it is often in making that transition painless or strategically sensible. You just made a comment regarding the cost of electricity getting closer, with regard to solar and battery storage, to what is produced at a coal station. I often have reflected that in this country—I have a different view of the tyranny of distance—distance and our warm temperatures reduce that kilowatt of energy produced at a power station by sometimes around 50 per cent by the time it gets to its destination, with distance and heat reducing that amount of energy. I have not been convinced at this point that the cost of that piece of energy, or that half amount of the energy produced at the coal station, takes into account the cost of the poles and the wires and the maintenance of those poles and wires. Therefore, if we are to look at a transition, would it not be wise to give some consideration to regional and remote areas transitioning earlier to such energy as solar and battery, knowing that the cost of getting the existing power source there is greater and therefore there is an economic benefit immediately?

Prof. Bradlow : I think it definitely makes sense for regional and remote areas to be aggressive adopters of the technology. There is no question about it in my mind. I am not completely sure whether the figures that I have quoted to you have taken the end-to-end cost of delivery generation plus distribution into account or not. But, there are significant advantages in terms of reliability if you have solar plus battery, especially if you are in a regional area, because you are much less vulnerable to outages than you would be if you were totally reliant on grid energy.

There are also other opportunities. As you point out, we live in a hot country. If you have enough solar power from your roof, you can run your air conditioner all day and leave your windows open, and it costs you and the environment nothing to do so, because it is being generated by the solar panels. Those types of things will change the way we live, and therefore also, combined with telecommunications, change the opportunities for regional and rural Australia.

CHAIR: I just want to pursue this theme of transition, with regard to the autonomous vehicles and following on from what Angus discussed with you earlier. As we move finally to all vehicles being autonomous, would it be a reasonable position to take during this transition that during peak hour traffic in urban areas your vehicle must be autonomous? Therefore, you are looking at a combination of public transport and this new form of, as Angus categorised, public transport combining to optimise the movement of people, and there could be other freedoms of autonomy or not during less precious times.

Prof. Bradlow : Yes, that is definitely a proposition. There is a number of different ways in which you can do the transition arrangements. When we modelled it, we assumed that when enough autonomous vehicles were on the road, you would reserve lane of the freeway, for example. Like you have a transit lane today, you would reserve it for autonomous vehicles because they can effectively pack in twice as many vehicles per lane as you can ordinary vehicles because they react at machine speed as opposed to human speed. But as you point out, it is also a viable strategy to have certain times of day or certain areas of the city. If you think of London with its congestion tax, you could introduce to zone in cities that were for autonomous vehicles only. There is a multiple of those transition strategies and it makes a lot of sense to adopt those earlier than later. In fact it will encourage the uptake as well.

CHAIR: Prof. Bradlow, is there anything else you would like to offer us?

Prof. Bradlow : The only comment I would add is you have talked about transition arrangements. The impact of ICT on the society overall, as I said in the beginning, is going to be very significant no more so than in what work we do, where we work and how we work. I think if we get ahead of the game and plan for a society in which these things happen, it will serve us far better than if we assume that we can stop these transitions occurring. My encouragement to government and to business and to the citizens of Australia is it takes a lot of adjustment in terms of human behaviour, outlook and the way we think about things but the sooner we make that adjustment, the better off we are all going to be.

CHAIR: The other comment that has sparked my imagination is that when you look at autonomous vehicles, and in some ways solar power and battery storage are plugging this into an ancient world and, as we move forward, we need to have parallel development of our housing and of our roads and of our traffic management systems to optimise the efficiency of this technology that is now available to us. I guess that is the challenge.

Prof. Bradlow : Look at traffic management, in a world of fully autonomous vehicles, you will not need traffic lights anymore; all intersections will flow, which will be a tremendous saving in congestion. But from the point of view of someone walking cross a road with cars flowing all around them, it will take a bit of adjustment. It is not going to happen overnight.

CHAIR: There is a problem with pedestrians—the pesky little people who want to cross the road. That is a significant issue, isn't it?

Prof. Bradlow : You can build pedestrians into the system because we are all carrying phones, which will communicate with the vehicle. The difficult part is getting people to accept it, to walk across the road and just assume they will not get run over and take an act of faith.

CHAIR: It will be natural justice if they walk across the road at the wrong time.

Thank you for attending the public hearing today. The secretariat will send you a draft transcript of proceedings. Requests can be made to correct any errors in transcription. It would be helpful if you could send the secretariat any additional materiel that you have undertaken to provide. I do not think there is anything in that area.

Resolved that these proceedings be published.

Committee adjourned at 18:29