The Fence

Kate Cousins: life in the autonomous lane

Kate Cousins Holden portrait iMOVE CRC
Kate Cousins. Image courtesy of iMOVE CRC

Kate Cousins works to make Holden cars, wherever they’re designed, work well in Australian conditions. And that sees her right there in the middle of the task of putting connected and automated vehicles on our roads.

Where are you working now Kate, and what do you do?

I am the Active Safety and Automated Driving Lead Engineer at Holden. Which means, basically my job is to… I guess I’ve got a couple of hats, but my main job is to make sure that all of the active safety features that we’ve got in our vehicles here in Australia work in Australian conditions. Such as seeing how Lane Keep Assist deals with tram lines, AEB (Automatic Emergency Braking), Traffic Sign Recognition.

And how did you gravitate toward doing what you’re doing? I know you’ve got a background in engineering at Swinburne. Was it there you went along this path or is this something before that that made you go into vehicles?

I did robotics and mechatronics at Swinburne and they have, as part of their course, a year’s work experience. Industry-based learning. I found myself at a company called Delphi which makes steering gears and shock absorbers, and that’s where I caught the automotive bug.

And what time were you working Delphi? And when was it you switched over to GMH? Was it straight to GMH?

I think it was halfway through third year that I went and did a year at Delphi. I came back and finished my final year at Swinburne, and then went straight from Swinburne right into Holden, where I’ve been there nearly thirteen years now.

Alright, so you started at Holden in about 2005. So other than your study and that one year’s industry-based training during your study, did you work anywhere else in the field before that?

No, not at all. I’ve been at Holden for my whole working career.

Lucky you! And what’s been the progression of your jobs there at Holden?

I started in the graduate program which was a two-year, rotational-based program. I managed to get myself into lots of different areas, and then once that program finished I moved straight into HVAC (Heating, Ventilation, and Airconditioning) and I was there as the Electronic Climate Control calibrator, there for about seven years. Six or seven years doing that and then I moved across to electrical.

And now you’re doing a bit of work in the autonomous vehicle field. What sort of non-top secret stuff are you allowed to tell us about that you’re doing now?

We have quite a lot of alignment with General Motors in the USA, so a lot of the technologies GM work on, we work with and help develop, particularly for the company’s Australian cars.

But also, I think you might have heard a month or so ago, the announcement we made that Holden is now getting involved a lot in both autonomous vehicles and battery electric vehicles, designing them from the ground up. We are starting to do a lot of design work for those.

In Australia?

In Australia.

For Australia, or for the world?

For the world.

Go us!

Yes, go us! We just hired, or are in the process of hiring engineers across into Holden at the moment.

Okay. Well, look forward to hearing more about that. And so, leaving you for a moment, we’ll come back to you, but it’s hypothetical time. Someone’s walked up to you and said, “I’ve got this very large bucket of money and within this reasonable time frame, I’d like you to take a stab at a problem and fix it in the transport field.” What would your big bucks project be?

So I guess part of the last 18 months something that I’ve been working on is a traffic sign recognition system that we’ve just brought out in the new Holden Acadia. I’ve driven across all of Australia and New Zealand, every state except for Tasmania, and making sure that we can capture all the street signs that we’ve got in Australia. And what we found is that we are very inconsistent in Australia. New Zealand wasn’t too bad. Actually New Zealand was quite good, but Australia, we are terrible.

Every state has a different school zone and sometimes more than one school zone type within the state. Different times, different fonts, different shapes, different size of signs, different placements, different rules. So it’s been an interesting exploration. At the moment that’s where my passion lies. It just so happens that Austroads were commissioned by the government to do an inquiry into that last year, and I’ve been heavily involved in helping it flesh out where all the issues lie, along with recommendations on how we can fix them.

If we want autonomous vehicles here in the near future, we need to fix our rules, regulations, signs, and basic infrastructure, and make it consistent across Australia.

And lines.

And lines, correct. That’s one we’re about to start looking on at the moment is line markings.

Basically your big bucks idea would be to harmonise Australia for autonomous vehicles or bring in, before that, common sense in this area?

Yes, correct. It will help everyone across the whole industry too. There’s been some instances where car companies have brought out, for example, the traffic sign feature, thinking that it would be the same as in Europe. Brought it out and within two weeks they retract it.

I think if we want to help Australia develop and get some of these new features in our cars, and speed up that process, we need to make sure that we’re across the infrastructure side as well.

You mentioned we’re making these cars for Australian conditions. How much do you think the world needs to harmonise lines and signs?

It definitely does. I think we need to across the world, whether it’s the Geneva Convention or whatever it is we pick, I think yes definitely we need to harmonise. Particularly as we move away from the right-hand / left-hand drive conversation that we’ve had for years. As we’re moving into autonomous vehicles and that gets less and less important, I think the current concern is the rules and the infrastructure across the world being harmonised.

Do you think it’s achievable, given that humans don’t like change? Might there be an uproar about loss of national character if we go making our lines and signs the same as the rest of the world?

I think there’s a difference between character and some of the vital things like signs. Also the more people we have coming in to Australia, or moving interstate, the more road rules, signs, and lines, are universally, and easily, understood.

Alright. And now moving on to the small budget hypothetical. A small amount of money to make an appreciable impact upon a transport problem. What would you pick?

It would be along similar lines to my big budget hypothetical answer. I think my small budget fix would be to pick one item, for example just the street signs, and make those common across Australia.

And would you attack that in order of potential of danger?

I’ll give an example where in Victoria you see signs popping up all the time, new signs where you’ve got the 40 sign with crossroad arrow signs.

I’m new to Victoria …

Okay. It’s 40 kilometres an hour, with arrows pointing left and right, which indicates that the speed limit of the road you’re about to cross is 40.

If you’re turning into the road then you’ll get a new sign saying it’s 40 so it makes it easy. So it makes it easy for the driver to look at it and go, “Okay, this sign on the road I’m about to turn into is forty,” but as we’re moving further and further into technology path, this doesn’t help the technology. In fact it confuses it slightly.

Okay, back to you, of what you’ve done so far, what’s the project or work you’ve done that you’re most proud of?

Not trying to promote the brand or anything, but I think the Holden Acadia we launching in the last few weeks, I think is probably from an active safety point and technology point, probably one of the strongest that we’ve had our portfolio.

I’ve been able to make a difference being here making sure that Australia, or that Holden, gets the right active safety features in this car that not necessarily the rest of GM has yet. In this car we’ve got a lot of firsts for not only Holden, but for GM. For example bike detection. We are the first to have AEB for bikes. We are the first in GM to get this technology.

In the world?

In the GM world, yes. And I think that’s because we’ve made a push saying that our landscape in Australia, we love our cyclists and bicycles are a big part of our culture. It’s a feature that we desperately need here in Australia, whereas other markets won’t necessarily need it as much. So the features that I’ve managed to get into this vehicle are a great addition, and make it a stronger vehicle for the brand.

Of all the technologies coming at us, what is it that’s three to five years out that you’re most excited about?

So it’s interesting. You break it down, but with active safety features you put them all together and you get an autonomous vehicle. But we’ve done a lot of research and I think that customers need a slow adoption of these features. We can’t just throw them all in autonomous vehicles and expect everything to feel fine.

No, because that would perhaps make us have to read the manual.

Oh yes, God forbid! We’re going to get more and more active safety features being introduced in these vehicles which will enable customers to feel more comfortable when they finally get to level five autonomous vehicles. I think the next three to five years will enable the transition to these new features to be easier. Some of the features we’ve got coming out, which I obviously can’t talk about, sorry about that, I think are very exciting and will help that transition.

I’ve asked people this a few times and I think so far there’s reasonable agreement in the answer, but how far away do you think we are from anywhere near like a level four, level five autonomous car being on the roads publicly, legally, regulatory all good to go?

I think you have to put them in two buckets. There’s level four or five in a ride sharing type of environment, and then there’s obviously level four and level five in which there’s personal ownership. I think that second scenario is a long way away. I think the technology that we’ve got in cars is too expensive for the public to purchase at the moment. I think where it’s going to be in the nearer future is with ride-sharing type applications. And I think they’re probably closer than everyone thinks they are.

Oh really? See, I wouldn’t have drawn the distinction between public ownership and shared ownership because I thought the bigger problems would have been proving the technology and getting the regulatory side of things right. But you’re saying it’s a monetary matter?

Monetary, I think, in terms of the difference between ride sharing and ownership. I think definitely the way of the future is moving away from ownership and going to ride sharing or renting.

But certainly in our lifetime, we love driving, we’re a driving culture, we have that. It’s going to take a while for people to not want to have that bit of their own they can drive in peace, and not have to share with anybody else, or borrow anybody else’s car, or rent a car. I think ownership is going to be a long way in the future.

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