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Dennis Walsh: Engineering Queensland’s transport future

Dennis-Walsh-and-ZOE2
Dennis Walsh

Queensland is getting a lot of traction on the future transport front. So, it’s time to wheel in the Chief Engineer of that state’s Department of Transport and Main Roads for a chat. Dennis Walsh has a lot on the go with a focus on the connected automated vehicle space. His diverse role means he’s too time-poor these days to be the quintessential engineer who’s always tinkering. But he’s no dinosaur on the tech front. Dennis explains.

Can you tell us more about your current role??

I’ve got a broad role and am responsible for all matters around technology and engineering standards related to road transport. The Chief Engineer’s role is to manage the department’s risk profile now and into the future. There’s about 25 discrete engineering or engineering-related areas that come under my domain.

We’ve got lots of things on the go. They include material science areas, sustainability, and mobility. We’re looking at how we can engage with industry as our transport system transforms into the future. It will be quite different. There’s a lot of conjecture and evidence emerging around mobility and how consumers will see, view and consume it. We need to understand those needs. The role of government is to enable those services to happen so they’re inclusive, safe, productive and supports the state’s and country’s economy.

Since 2017, TMR has been delivering the four-year Cooperative and Automated Vehicle Initiative (CAVI) to pave the way for new vehicle technologies on Queensland roads. There are three main elements:

In my mind, it’s about how transport infrastructure adjusts with new vehicle technology so those worlds are moving closer together. We’re working with industries we’ve not worked with before.

We’re contributing more broadly to the whole Internet of Things (IoT) connecting it to our Skada-based system. We’ve really thrown ourselves in with the aim of understanding that.

We’re also doing great things to manage significant natural disaster challenges. In a big state like Queensland, we need to quickly provide real-time information on our transport network such as availability. We’re working with the Bureau of Meteorology to get into the space of predicting road outages, too, and telling the public when it will be available again.

As for more traditional technologies, we’re now working on next-generation traffic signal controls. That means we can update and ensure they’re more flexible. As well, we’re replacing streetlights with LED technology. It brings a whole lot of other possibilities in terms of managing economic and energy benefits. We can be more responsive in providing lighting depending on different situations – we’ve never had that in the past.

How did you gravitate to working in the mobility field?

Even though I graduated in the civil stream, my work soon focused on systems around transport and traffic engineering, doing data analysis and modelling. I worked in the private sector for a few years, then moved into government about 25 years ago. I’ve had multiple careers inside a large organisation taking up excellent opportunities to do lots of different things. Putting aside all the stereotypes of government, it’s a fantastic space to be involved in both in terms of influencing as well as fostering technological engineering skills.

I worked more directly in intelligent transport systems for 10 years from the early 2000s, then moved into road and rail safety, becoming a program manager at Austroads. It gave me an appreciation of what safety outcomes technology could offer. I initiated CAVI in that role and brought it back with me. It’s good to keep close to technology and engineering, so I did a master’s degree in engineering science.

TMR’s vision is a very compelling message – to create a single, integrated transport system that’s accessible to everyone.

Where else have you worked?

Early in my career, I worked for 12 months at one of Australia’s largest councils, Brisbane City.

Now, I’m on the ANCAP board now for star rating of vehicles, so that has some obvious synergies with what we’re doing in intelligent transport systems. I’ve been on that board on and off for well over a decade and its vice-president for two-and-a-half years.

In your fields, what’s one transport project you’d undertake that would have a quick, appreciable impact?

For me, it’s about bringing safety benefits so I’d say to have Queensland’s CAVI rolled out nationally. We’re still seeing too many deaths on our road – more than 1,200 people die and there are over 30,000 hospitalisations a year.

Connectivity is going to boost safety in the short term. We’ll see increasing safety features in new vehicles as we progress towards autonomous vehicles on the road.

With a limited budget, I’d reduce travel speeds on roads. I’m talking about what the human body can tolerate in terms of forces. Think about our vulnerable road users – cyclists, motorcyclists and pedestrians. If we could redefine this, it would make some of our areas more liveable for our communities. It would see significant dividends for safety and people’s adoption of sustainable traffic modes as well.

What projects that you’ve been involved in are you most proud of?

There’s a few. One is coming to maturity – smart motorways. Queensland established that program last decade so it’s not standard practice to keep putting in tech to ensure they’re as safe and efficient as possible.

While I haven’t done this personally, I’m proud of the CAVI being able to level 4 autonomous driving vehicles onto the road network in live traffic – an Australian first.

Other than what you’re doing now and what you’ve previously done, is there something new, perhaps even a new field for you entirely, that you’d like to take on?

I’ve moved roles in this organisation every three-to-five years, so I quite like getting into a space where I feel less comfortable. It keeps me motivated and stimulates the brain. For me, that role is to link the really smart people who work with technology and tying it to the outcomes that stakeholders or the organisations need to deliver. I want to try to marry up those things and get them applied in the right context.

In the next three to five years, what in transport/smart city/etc. technology are you most excited about?

If we can get it right at a national level and agree on following the international standards that are relevant for us – the European ones – we can lay the foundations to enable a far more connected transport system. It’s not about the specific tech, but about agreeing on an approach nationally, bringing it on and delivering the benefits for our communities.

If we can’t reach that, then there’s potentially a risk of the [different] rail gauges issue again. If there’s a more piecemeal approach we’re not going to get the same scale of benefits.

We need to work with industry and be open to change. We need to start from a common starting place to achieve all the things you see in the prototypes that people are promising now.

It’s as much as the human dynamics as it is about the technology.

There’s a lot of research work and trials taking place in Queensland right now. What are you learning from this and is it changing the way you roll out your plans?

I have a team that’s delivering on working with a range of industry partners and they’re learning new things every day. The project delivery is agile – they’re tackling the issues collectively across partners and my team.

Challenges might be the interoperability of different vendors or pieces of equipment and how it connects back to a central ITS station that we’ve established. These things are a lot more complex than they appear on the surface.

One of our partners, QUT published a report about ZOE, an autonomous vehicle that drove around south-eastern Queensland equipped with the latest sensors. Professor Michael Milford led the team putting AI through its paces. It’s internationally significant work.

They found that some of the tech that relies on cameras only to navigate the networks were getting quite high error rates. They weren’t going to meet the safety regulations. What’s needed are prior maps, really detailed mapping of the ecosystem that the vehicle is moving through. That prior map can substantially increase the accuracy of the AI.

No matter how many sensors you put on a vehicle, there are things a vehicle will probably not anticipate. The research highlighted to me, there’s still a gap and I suspect that AI can get a lot of things sorted. It may play a role to help communities accept connected and autonomous vehicles on the road.

What would be your response to opinions that we won’t see fully automated and connected vehicles on our roads for 40 years or so?

The debate is always hypothetical because it depends on the context.

It’s highly unlikely that autonomous vehicles will be driving around in the next five to 10 years without drivers. An exception might be precinct areas, a defined route that’s highly constrained and low speed. It would have restrictions on access so there’d be no motorcyclists, pedestrians, cyclists or scooters, etc to deal with.

While we’re increasingly seeing automation of some parts of driving tasks, think about what’s required to achieve every vehicle on the network driving itself. It’s an enormous undertaking. We have 180,000 kilometres of roads in our state and that doesn’t count a lot of state forest roads, tracks and other publicly accessible areas that don’t have much support to get the smart tech for this to work.

We’re more likely to see progressive development of the features and technology – a step-wise change – but it will be in our own context.

Cybersecurity in this area is both a technical issue to overcome, and a PR matter. What do you see as the main issues in both areas?

There’s a whole complexity around security from the elements of the system individually, the system level as well as the trust between elements within a system. Connected vehicles within infrastructure exchange data under certain protocols, so you can trust that information, is coming from a trusted source.

The US and European models have a security credential management system. It’s an anonymised certificate that has trust with it when associated with it. It’s in the blockchain genre in real-time, but we’re talking about multiple messages per second. We’re rolling out this system in our Ipswich trial. It’s another layer of security to other parts such as the traffic signal control system.

As mentioned earlier, Queensland is very much taking, if not the lead then very big steps in the Co-operative and Automated Vehicle Initiative (CAVI). Is Queensland working actively with other states already, or is this marked for the future when there are more findings/data/thoughts?

Our CAVI project isn’t the first. NSW has had a connected vehicle trial on a smaller scale around Wollongong. We’ve collaborated quite a bit with our interstate counterparts.

I suppose the differentiator for CAVI is it’s on a larger scale, with 500 vehicles being deployed with as much fidelity as we can bring to the European standard. Aligning to that approach will hold us in good stead because 95% of new vehicles come to Australia with European specifications irrespective of their country of origin.

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