Self-driving cars in New Zealand's not-too-distant future

Google's prototype self-driving car.
REUTERS

Google's prototype self-driving car.

Don't get too attached to your steering wheel and brake pedal because self-driving cars could be hitting our roads sooner than you think.

The first privately-owned driverless vehicles could start appearing in New Zealand in as little as two years, once European manufacturers start bringing them to market, Transport Minister Simon Bridges says.

Bridges is in the German city of Leipzig to attend the International Transport Forum's annual summit, where a lot of the talk has been about the rapid pace of driverless car technology and how it could dramatically reduce the number of vehicles clogging up our roads.

Transport Minister Simon Bridges addresses a press conference at the International Transport Forum Summit in Leipzig, ...
Marc-Steffen Unger

Transport Minister Simon Bridges addresses a press conference at the International Transport Forum Summit in Leipzig, Germany.

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Alexander Dobrindt, the German Federal Minister of Transport, arrived at the summit on Wednesday in a self-driving BMW and predicted the technology would start rolling off German assembly lines as soon as 2017.

"In just a few years' time, what is completely digital will be completely normal," he said.

Sarah Hunter, Head of Public Policy at Google[x].
Sebastian Bolesch

Sarah Hunter, Head of Public Policy at Google[x].

Audi, BMW and Google are among those developing the technology.

Bridges said widespread use of self-driving cars in  New Zealand was still some way off, as Kiwis would be "technology takers" rather than developers.

"But that said, and while I'm not saying it will happen like this, I wouldn't be surprised that if in the next two or three years … there will be those who try to bring them to New Zealand, and good on them," Bridges said. "That will be something we need to be ready for."

ITF Secretary-General Jose Viegas said he did not think New Zealand's distance from Europe would hinder the spread of self-driving cars to our shores.

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If the cost could be kept down and Insurance companies were open to the idea then that would provide the stimulus, he said.

ITF corporate partnership board manager Sharon Masterson said Bridges had expressed interest in New Zealand becoming a testbed for self-driving cars in the coming years.

"The message has been that New Zealand is open for business, and that openness is important."

TAXI-BOTS AND AUTO-VOTS

The International Transport Forum - a global think-tank for transport policy - unveiled the results of a major study into the impact of self-driving cars at its summit on Thursday.

It discovered that a fleet of self-driving shared cars could make 90 per cent of conventional cars in a mid-sized city superfluous.

Researchers used actual transport data from Lisbon, Portugal to model the impact of two types of self-driving cars: those shared simultaneously by several passengers, dubbed TaxiBots, and those that pick-up and drop-off single passengers, known as AutoVots.

It found that a large-scale uptake of TaxiBots, in conjunction with high-capacity public transport, would remove nine out of every ten cars from the road without hindering people's mobility.

Even in the least effective scenario - AutoVots operating without support from high-capacity public transport - 50 per cent of cars would no longer be needed.

The need for on-street parking would also be totally removed, freeing up 1.5 million square metres, or 210 football fields, of road space for other uses.

THEY NEVER GET DRUNK, THEY NEVER GET TIRED

Sarah Hunter, head of public policy at Google's technology development facility Google[x], said the world was on the cusp of having cars and planes that required no interaction from humans at all, apart from inputting a destination.

"It can take you from A to B without you ever being involved. In fact, it's so autonomous, it doesn't require a steering wheel or brake."

Such vehicles would dramatically reduce the number of road accidents, which statistics showed were 94 per cent down to human error.

"It's not the car that brakes, it's the human that doesn't brake," she said.

"[Self-driving cars] never get drunk, they never get tired, they never get distracted by a text message."

Self-driving cars would also improve the quality of life for many, including the blind and elderly who cannot drive.

"But, broader than that, I think there are new freedoms currently unimaginable that autonomous technology will make available to all of us," Hunter said.

"What if we had meetings from the car? Would we sleep in the car? What difference would it make to our productivity, and what difference would it make to our day-to-day living with stress when we don't have to sit in traffic for two hours a day?"

 - Stuff

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