Transport Minister Simon Bridges trying to lure driverless cars to New Zealand

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

Transport Minister Simon Bridges is leading a drive to test Google's driverless cars in New Zealand after visiting Kiwi robotics expert Dave Ferguson.at the company's semi-secret Google X facility in California this month.

Wellington born Ferguson is developing the software that takes data from a series of cameras and sensors around the driverless car and uses it to drive the vehicle.

Ferguson studied at Onslow College in Wellington and Otago University before moving to the USA where he studied at Carnegie Mellon, Pennsylvania, one of the world's top robotics institutes.

He said in a statement that New Zealand, a country with a high road toll, had much to gain from the technology.

"I lead the machine learning and computer vision teams for Google's self-driving car project," Ferguson said on LinkedIn. "We're working to transform mobility and get more tacos into the right peoples' hands."

Bridges, who rode in one of the driverless cars during his visit to Google X, said there were no rules in New Zealand's legal infrastructure to prohibit driverless cars and he had invited Google to test them here.

"I wanted to ensure that our friends at Google know that we would like to see them use New Zealand as a test bed," Bridges said. "Nothing is for certain, but we know that they have done it before and we have got a good relationship."

Google launched Project Loon, a balloon-powered internet service, in New Zealand in 2013.

Google spokesperson Annie Baxter said: "It's wonderful to see the enthusiasm in this space. We are only testing in the US right now."

Volvo is set to conduct the Southern Hemisphere's first on-road trials of driverless cars in Adelaide, Australia, in November.

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"With the technology there's still definitely work to do," Bridges said. "What's going to happen is the need to test commercial products in other parts of the world. Industry will want to bring them to New Zealand. That's how it will start. 

"It's definitely coming, not just in our lifetime but in the next wee while."

Bridges also saw manufacturers Nissan and Toyota demonstarte autonomous cars on his trip which also took him to Japan. 

Such technology is already in use in some parts of the world, if only as a gimmick. The German Federal Minister of Transport Alexander Dobrindt arrived at the International Transport Forum in Germany in May in a self-driving BMW and predicted the technology would start rolling off German assembly lines as soon as 2017.

AA spokesman Barney Irvine said the technology would be transformational but was more circumspect about the time frame.

"Yes, they're coming, but it's more like 15-20 years or more."

The average age of the New Zealand fleet, Irvine said, was14 years. "What is New Zealand going to look like in 10 years. Go to Japan now. That's what it will be."

He expected to see a decrease in car ownership, with vehicles shared.

"More people will be able to get around. Old people, people with disabilities and of a lower socio-economic background."

Bridges said the driverless technology would revolutionise transport.

"No one has got their hands on the steering wheel," he said. "The person in the driving seat is facing the back at some points and not focussing on the road ahead," Bridges said. 

"You can get into quite deep conversations quite quickly. If you are able to concentrate on an iPad, or in my case cabinet papers, you are really transforming what travel can mean," he said.

"It could relieve congestion. You potentially eliminate an unneeded person from the car."

Insurance Council of New Zealand manager John Lucas expected to see driverless cars on New Zealand roads in five to ten years and the more that were on the roads the less likely accidents were and the lower insurance premiums could be.

"If we start to see the number of accidents reducing then insurers have got more money to become more competitive," Lucas said. "The effect of changes such as this on premiums will differ for each insurer, depending on their appetite for risk and how they assess that risk."

"We are already seeing new cars with radar cruise control that keeps a safe distance behind the car in front and automatic braking."

He was interested to know who would be held responsible if a driverless car was involved in an accident.

New Zealand Taxi Federation executive director Roger Heale said autonomous cars still needed drivers at the wheel in case of emergencies.

"The biggest risk to the autonomous car is the non-autonomous car," he said.

He wondered what decision such a vehicle would make if faced with a collision with another vehicle or hitting pedestrians.

"The government, or some unfortunate person, has to make some psychological rules."

 - Stuff

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