The road to self-driving cars

With so much debate about the pros and cons of driverless vehicles, it is increasingly clear that self-driving cars on our roads are now a matter of when, not if. But how will they fit into public transport?

It’s arguably the stuff of Jetsons. Cars, trucks and busses whizzing around without a human behind the wheel, making decisions based on unseen but constant communication with the road network and other vehicles. And the benefits on offer are out of this world – potential to inject an estimated $95 billion per annum into the economy, create 16,000 new jobs, save potentially more than 1,000 lives every year, and provide enhanced mobility for the elderly or disabled.

Driverless vehicle technology is the biggest advancement in the automobile since the combustion engine, and this technology will profoundly impact every single person in the community in some way.

Imagine not needing to own your own car, and no longer having to foot the bill for expensive parking, storage, registration and maintenance. The double garage at home becomes a thing of the past, with the space it creates perfect for a larger yard or bigger living areas. Cars of the future will be easily summoned from a smartphone, picking you up and taking you where you need to go – safely and comfortably.

Not convinced that this isn’t more than science fiction? Cities such as Phoenix in the US are already doing real-world testing of driverless car sharing, where people can book a ride without compromising on the freedom or privacy they had by owning their own car.

Remember that once upon a time people baulked at the idea of a car that can park itself, or brake automatically to avoid a crash. Now we seen that technology in action in the very cars we drive to work and home.

Consider the rapid uptake of mobile phone technology for example.

If you were living in the early 90s and were told that you could have a powerful computer/phone/camera that fits in your pocket and allows you to access millions of databases around the world and talk to whoever you want, you would have laughed yourself out of your happy pants. Now we are heading towards 19.4 million mobile phones in Australia and we use them as a part of our everyday work and social lives.

While there will be those who will want to still buy their own self-driving car when the time comes, there is sure to be those who will be happy sharing a driverless car and use it as they need. As the number of vehicles fall by a predicted one third in the years ahead while total kilometres travelled increases at the same time – with an expected 50:50 split of driverless shared vehicles and those that are privately owned on the roads by 2050.

As the nation’s peak industry body, the Australia and New Zealand Driverless Vehicle Initiative (ADVI) believes that in many ways, driverless shuttles are perfect first step for a CBD environment – because they can be used to shuttle people around the city, shopping centres, hospitals, retirements precincts and university settings, linking to and from existing public transport nodes. As a “first and last mile” option they showcase how commuters could take a bus, train or tram like normal – and then have a driverless shuttle take them to a station, home or elsewhere for the last part of their trip.

The next step of integrating driverless shuttles with existing mass transport options like buses, trains and trams will ultimately reduce congestion levels and provide more affordable transport for users who can’t afford expensive costs of car ownership or have a health problem or other reasons that prevent them for having a licence.

These benefits are already on the radar of road-users, even though most people are yet to experience driverless vehicle technology first hand. In fact, ADVI-commissioned research found that 47 per cent of Australians agree that driverless vehicles will be safer than traditional vehicles, 70 per cent want a self-driving car to take over when they feel tired or bored, and just under three quarters (73 per cent) want to be transported when they feel physically or mentally unable to drive manually.

As one of only a handful of countries pioneering on-road driverless vehicle research, Australia and New Zealand are positioned to become global leaders in the development and deployment of driverless vehicle technologies and invigorate the automotive and technology sectors.

ADVI ensures the community is at the very forefront of its activities in the transition to this new technology and will continue to ensure that the public understands the benefits that can be achieved from incorporating this technology into our future transport network.

We have already seen several state governments put measures and legislative frameworks in place to trial and test this technology in different vehicle types under real-world conditions. Similarly, the technology is developing at such a rapid rate that it does not have to necessarily rely on connectivity with the road network to perform.

Australia put itself on the global map by making motoring history by supporting ADVI’s on-road trial of a driverless car – a Volvo XC90 – in Adelaide as the first trial of its type in the Southern Hemisphere.

That was followed by the creation of a National Centre of Excellence, which is leading the charge by bringing key decision-makers from government, industry and the private sector together to look at the technologies available and understand which will best-suit Australian conditions.

The future focus of public transport and introduction of driverless vehicles onto our road network are set to be key discussion points later this year when more than 500 prominent local, national and international technology thought leaders, human factors experts, industry representatives, insurance practitioners and regulators from across the driverless vehicle ecosystem come to Adelaide for the 3rd International Driverless Vehicle Summit (IDVS3).

For more about ADVI, the latest news on driverless vehicles, and the International Driverless Vehicle Summit visit www.advi.org.au

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