Transport Minister Simon Bridges keen on self-driving cars in NZ by end of the year

Uber's self-driving Volvo, being tested in Pittsburgh this month.
Uber

Uber's self-driving Volvo, being tested in Pittsburgh this month.

Self-driving cars are popping up all over the world, but not really in New Zealand - yet. Minister of Transport Simon Bridges says they'll be here sooner than you think, and might completely transform society.

In Pittsburgh USA this month, rideshare company Uber are doing something new.

Passengers in the city may randomly be assigned a car driven not by a boring old human but by a computer. A driver will still sit in the seat, hovering near the wheel in case something goes wrong, but the car should do the whole thing itself. The rides will be free, for now.

This feels inevitable. Uber's business model consists almost entirely of making rides cheaper by making them more efficient. Removing the human is a natural progression.

Transport Minister Simon Bridges is excited about self-driving cars.
SIMON MAUDE/FAIRFAX NZ

Transport Minister Simon Bridges is excited about self-driving cars.

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But it also feels awfully soon. We usually think of self-driving cars as something looming over the horizon, something for demonstration YouTubes, not primetime. The experts say we're wrong.

Uber boss Travis Kalanick is very keen on self-driving cars. Can you blame him?
REUTERS

Uber boss Travis Kalanick is very keen on self-driving cars. Can you blame him?

"The question isn't when the technology will be ready, the question is when politicians will allow it to happen," said Paul Ralph from the University of Auckland. He's a computer science lecturer who specialises in complex systems.

"It's a political question, like asking when we are going to get electoral reform. The technology is basically ready now. The question is how long it will take different countries to allow it."

New Zealand is straining to become one of the first countries on the self-driven bandwagon.

"The government is more than open to tests like the one in Pittsburgh," Bridges said. "Across the transport technologies we want to have New Zealand perceived as a test bed where these things can be tried."

Bridges aims to have a large scale trial or demonstration of driverless technology in New Zealand by the end of the year. He predicts self-driving cars will be widely available in NZ - both to buy and to rideshare in - by the early 2020s.

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But will that 2016 test be through Uber? 

Probably not: Bridges said he was in talks with a variety of companies but not them, and Uber refused to discuss any future plans in New Zealand. A recent stoush over P-endorsements for human drivers probably has something to do with that.

Would it be legal?

"New Zealand as you may have seen is relatively unusual in that there is no legal impediment to driverless vehicles. We don't have a positive law that says you must have a driver with his or her hands on the wheel," Bridges said.

That said, anyone wanting to test driverless cars is asked to submit a safety plan to the government, and police have the power to stop any vehicle they deem unsafe. There are very few Teslas in NZ, but it seems nobody has been arrested for leaving one on autopilot yet.

SELF-DRIVING CARS 'CLEARLY SAFER'

The dream of a driverless future is easy to understand.

Driving is the most risky activity most of us engage in. Humans are terribly unsafe drivers prone to errors of attention, temperament, and intoxication. 

Both Bridges and Ralph believe self-driving cars are dramatically safer.

"Whilst one or two of us might think we are god's gift to road safety, technology is clearly safer. But there will be a teething period where this technology mixes with drivers who are not always making rational decisions," Bridges said.

"As of right now self-driving cars are far safer," Ralph said. The safety boons ramp up as more and more of the road is driven by computers.

"One automatic car in a sea of cars driven by people is still safer. You get gains as the percentage of driverless cars goes up. But the gains are much stronger when you have a majority - kind of like with cyclists. If one cyclist is on the road drivers don't know how to react. If half of the vehicles on the road are bikes people are used to it, it works okay."

There are still questions that need to be answered on road safety: should a self-driving car swerve to avoid hitting a schoolbus if that means the driver might die? Who is liable when a self-driving car hits a pedestrian?

NO CONGESTION, NO PARKING TICKETS

But safety is only one half of the driverless dream. 

As it stands, privately owned cars are rather inefficient. Even if you drive to and from work all day your car likely sits empty for 23 hours of every 24, taking up space in a parking garage or your home. When you do drive it you are more likely than not to be alone in a car that seats up to five. 

Already, younger people are increasingly forgoing driver's licences and car ownership in favour of Uber. If that Uber was safer, cheaper, and faster, more and more people could give up on car-ownership.

"I'm incredibly motivated around this, and not in a new age spacey way," Bridges said. 

"If you think about Auckland congestion, if we can move from 1.2 people per car to 1.7 or 1.8 per car - through those people choosing to use apps that are cheaper and more convenient - that will have a dramatic effect on congestion."

Ralph is optimistic too.

"If we get into more of a sharing society where a smaller percentage of society own a car, that will mean less congestion and less cars being made. And there are enormous carbon emissions that come from the building of cars."

"There's also going to a lot less parking problems as less people will want to park."

THE TEETHING PERIOD

So should 2016's 15-year-olds skip out on their driving licence? 

At this stage, anyone "behind the wheel" of a driverless vehicle should have their licence and be fully alert and ready to take over the car.

While our law is relatively open to driverless cars, there are definitely kinks to be worked out in the next few years, so don't expect to be napping while heading down State Highway 1 this decade.

"There will clearly be a teething period, where issues that may be quite significant may have to be ironed out," Bridges said.

"But it is going to happen sooner than people think."

This period of disruption could be painful - particularly for people with jobs in the taxi and trucking industry. Ralph argues this is a small price to pay for the safety and environmental gains.

"We have this thing that is going to literally save peoples lives. We can't not do that because people will have to find new work."

 - Stuff

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