How Australia Is Using Brilliant Research For Transport Problems

This article is part of the series on the Science and Research Priorities recently announced by the Federal Government.

More research can improve how our existing transport infrastructure works. Erin Geary/Flickr, CC BY

Marion Terrill
Transport Program Director at the Grattan Institute

The Transport priorities announced by the government recommend that departments and agencies should give priority to research that will lead to:

  • Low emission fuels and technologies for domestic and global markets
  • Improved logistics, modelling and regulation: urban design, autonomous vehicles, electrified transport, sensor technologies, real time data and spatial analysis
  • Effective pricing, operation, and resource allocation.

Transport’s value lies not so much in the service itself, but in its power to enable us to move around and enjoy the things we care about. Transport research in general should focus on efficiency, productivity, reliability and access. Decisions we make about transport are very long-lived, not only committing us to decades of infrastructure maintenance but also locking us in to today’s technologies and usage.

Scientific research in the transport field should focus on those areas where Australia has unique or unusual characteristics. Transport activity accounts for more than a third of Australia’s energy consumption and close to three quarters of our use of liquid fuels, due to long distances between population and economic centres. With demand for transport fuel rising, Australia has a stronger need than many nations to improve technology for domestic and export markets.

Second, scientific research can be most effective by focusing on the right stages of the technology lifecycle. Exciting as it may be to invent a brand new technology, in most cases economic and social benefit comes about through the adaptation of new technology to local circumstances and its diffusion into widespread use. As a small player, Australia will always struggle to play a big role in original creation, but we can be swift adapters and effective spreaders of productive technology.

As well as shaping future transport developments, scientific research can also increase the efficient use of what we already have. Never before has there been such capacity to regulate traffic flows on city roads, share cars among multiple users, intervene swiftly when equipment shows signs of wear or breakdown, or unload freight containers safely.

“Cheaper, safer and more environmentally friendly transport technology needs smart regulation and allocation of funding to the most valuable transport infrastructure and services.”


Rob Fitzpatrick
Director of Infrastructure, Transport & Logistics at NICTA

Populations in our urban areas are on track to double. You can bet that the amount of roads we have to drive on will certainly not double.

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Australians need to use what we already have, and do so far more efficiently, before we invest in new capacity. And when we do invest, it must be through “d3”: Data-Driven Decision-making.

There is simply no excuse in today’s world not to harness data from myriad sources, develop living simulations of what’s going on in the world around us, learn from history (yes, it does repeat itself) to predict future outcomes and from that base, shape planning priorities.

Better research can help reduce congestion and all its concomitant problems. *vlad*/Flickr, CC BY-NC

What can we solve, and why should transport be a priority?

Congestion. It can be solved, but what does it take?

  • Commitment from government departments, agencies and bureaucrats to “own the answer”. They shouldn’t accept views from traditional consultants, and not hold back data
  • Recognition that there’s no silver bullet, other than the science of data analytics and optimisation. Myriad solutions combine to transport people from A to B. Factoring in freight, which has to share the same road and rail infrastructure, adds complexity in largely predictable ways
  • Increasing visibility and transparency of data from both public and private sector organisations so that individuals and organisations can make decisions based on fact, not speculation
  • New analytic techniques. There are loads of these that fundamentally challenge traditional consultants’ “insights” on latent capacity, required infrastructure and options for alternate, integrated, modality.

Demand management.

Our roads can appear as if kids are on permanent school holiday in term-time. That only takes 3-5% reduction in traffic volumes. Do we seriously believe well-informed, data-driven public policy can’t encourage a 3-5% improvement in road utilisation?


Infrastructure investment prioritisation.

With increasing “visibility” of freight flows into, out of and within Australia, we can develop a dynamic picture of the “beating heart” of our nation. With this, we can visualise which roads and bridges, which urban areas and port districts, are under stress at particular times of the year, and more pragmatically align the A$150 billion of new annual infrastructure investment to areas that need it most.

Why should transport be a research priority? Because hard-working mums and dads of Australia are spending too much time in traffic going to and from work, and not enough time with their kids. And because Australia has some of the world’s most serious talent addressing these challenges. Australia is already one of the most highly urbanised countries on the planet. Solve these challenges here and we can commercialise outcomes for years to come.

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In October 2016, the World Congress on Intelligent Transport Systems, where the world’s leading brains meet to share insights and new ideas, is convening in Melbourne. Let this be a rallying cry for liberating our transport capabilities!


Susan Pond
Adjunct Professor in Sustainability at the United States Study Centre at the University of Sydney and Leader of the Alternative Transport Fuels Initiative

Aviation is one of the transport areas where Australia has unique or unusual characteristics.

Australia is more reliant on domestic and international aviation than most countries because of the long distances within the country and to international markets.

Aviation is more reliant on liquid fossil fuels, mainly in the form of kerosene, than most other transport modes. Australia is heavily reliant on imported liquid fossil fuels, either in the form of crude oil for refining onshore or refined petroleum products.

More research can improve the fuels we use in aviation. Francisco Martins/Flickr, CC BY-NC

Development of an Australian renewable jet fuel industry will provide solutions for our liquid fuel supply security concerns, our aviation sector’s demand for low carbon emission fuels and our need for industry diversification through the introduction of new value-adding manufacturing industries.

Importantly, the renewable jet fuels industry sits at the interface between aviation and agriculture, another sector that is critical for Australia’s future.

Many processing and conversion technologies to convert feedstocks, such as agricultural waste streams, into renewable jet fuel are already available “off the shelf”, mostly from international suppliers. The renewable fuels drop in to all existing infrastructure built to handle conventional jet fuel and meet the same international standards as their fossil fuel equivalents.

Even so, there is much research to be done before the renewable aviation fuel industry can become viable in Australia. Issues to be addressed in the Australian context include feedstock availability and costs, best practice integration of new, economically self-sustaining supply chains, biorefinery product portfolios and progress towards final cost per unit outputs that are competitive in the market.

It’s hard to think of a better, large-scale industry growth opportunity for Australia and a better time to play to our strengths.


This feature originally appeared in The Conversation.


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