Are driverless cars the saviour of Auckland traffic?

New players such as Google are entering the world of cars as software overtakes traditional manufacturing methods.

New players such as Google are entering the world of cars as software overtakes traditional manufacturing methods.

Driverless cars are being touted as a modern fix for Auckland's traffic mess.

With the city's population growing and motorways groaning under peak hour gridlock, transport authorities are looking at solutions outside the box - including removing humans from behind the wheel.  

And while promoting the use of more cars to reduce traffic may seem counter-intuitive, a study commissioned by the government and Auckland Council suggested that once there were enough automated vehicles on the road congestion would decrease and efficiency would improve.

Transport Minister Simon Bridges tests a driverless car at Google X in Mountain View, California.

Transport Minister Simon Bridges tests a driverless car at Google X in Mountain View, California.

In other words, sit back, relax and your car will drive you home quicker than you ever could. 

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But is it all crystal ball gazing or a near-future reality? 

Transport Minister Simon Bridges said it was closer than we think, with autonomous vehicles expected to see a renewed focus in 2017.

He said a good example was the trial of driverless shuttles at Christchurch Airport that was due to start this year.

In the short term, he said rather than a sudden influx of fully automated vehicles it was likely we would see automated shuttles taking people to and from places like railway and bus stations.

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That would provide the stepping stone toward a fully automated, fully connected network of driverless cars, he said.  

Once the technology was commercially viable to the point where they were commonplace on the roads "it should enable us to make much better use of the roads we already have and to build fewer new traffic lanes than we otherwise would have needed in growing cities like Auckland".


The government and council commissioned report said that for any substantial benefits to come from reconfiguring road space for the use of connected and autonomous vehicles, at least half of all cars would need to be autonomous.

That mark was expected to be reached by 2055 and could result in a 22 per cent improvement in road capacity, the October 2015 report from University College London and University of Auckland said.

It added that by 2075 the entire fleet was predicted to have shifted to connected and autonomous vehicles.

Auckland Transport spokesman Mark Hannan said they were "constantly reviewing planning horizons to ensure AV technologies are given consideration when new infrastructure is planned and built".

Bridges said driverless cars could be legally trialled on the roads right now.

"New Zealand is well placed to test autonomous vehicles as our legislation does not explicitly require a driver to be present for a vehicle to be used on the road, which means so long as a vehicle meets relevant safety standards, and the testing is carried out safely, we could test a truly driverless vehicle today."


As well as transforming traffic, self-driving cars could increase interest in outer suburbs and satellite townships, Bayleys national residential manager Daniel Coulson said.

With the potential to cut commuting times, properties on the suburban fringes would be a more attractive prospect, Coulson said.

"In Auckland, this could push up house prices in greenbelt locations such as Te Kauwhata, Warkworth and Helensville," he said.

While he said established inner-city suburbs would always retain their value more people would opt for the pace of life in the suburbs if it was more convenient to get to and from work.

Coulson said the other big shift that would follow driverless cars was an uptake in car-sharing, such as driverless Ubers.

He said houses one day may not even need garages, while car parks could be redesigned as parks, public spaces or residential/commercial developments.

Deputy head of urban design at the University of Auckland professor Errol Haarhoff said the move toward driverless technology would be a major shift in the way we live, and pose big questions for government in how much they were willing to invest in it.

The cost of building dedicated infrastructure for driverless cars, or to accommodate life on city fringes, could be hugely expensive, Haarhoff said.

Plus, it was likely driverless cars would have to use the same infrastructure that existing cars use, meaning more road upgrades.

The other issue for car-centric cities such as Auckland would be a change in attitude towards private car ownership.

"Your status in society would no longer depend on you having a BMW in your garage - you would be quite happy to be driven around in a plastic bubble," he said.

 - Stuff


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