IMAGINE having a car that could drop you at work before heading to your partner’s office and then ferrying your children to separate schools.
Well, driverless cars are no longer some sci-fi movie gimmick, the first vehicle is due to hit Australian roads this year and they will soon have the ability to transform how we live.
While much of the discussion around driverless cars has been around whether they will make driving safer, policy makers are now coming to grips with how much they could reduce congestion and make major road investments redundant.
The first trial of a driverless car will take place in South Australia in November, on Adelaide’s Southern Expressway. It will be the first of many held across the country as part of a national research initiative.
Advocates say autonomous vehicles could significantly improve road safety, quality of life and even Australia’s economic competitiveness.
At an infrastructure conference earlier this year, the chief executive officer of infrastructure development company Transfield, Graeme Hunt, said governments needed to understand the potentially disruptive impact driverless cars could have.
“If the technology becomes mainstream … the driverless car could conceivably drop off dad and mum at different workplaces, and the kids, one by one, at different schools,” Mr Hunt said.
“The need for a second car in the typical family diminishes and with the reduction of vehicles in households you might find that some of the road investments, which we’re making today, may be redundant tomorrow.”
South Australian Royal Automobile Association general manager of public affairs Penny Gale said by 2020, all new cars would have some ability to drive themselves.
“Removing the need for a driver will open up a whole new transport opportunity for many of our members, particularly people with disabilities and the elderly, while removing the reliance on human behaviour will undoubtedly save lives,” she said.
THE FUTURE IS HERE:
Volvo will be the first to trial driverless cars on Aussie roads. Under controlled conditions, driverless Volvos will travel down an Adelaide highway at speeds of up to 100km/h, giving regulators and researchers an insight into what is needed for Australian conditions and setting course for a day when autonomous vehicles have the run of our roads.
Road researchers from technical advisory organisation ARRB Group are leading the trial, which also involves Telstra, industrial group Bosch, the South Australian government and Flinders University.
Companies like Google, Mercedes-Benz and Tesla have also been testing autonomous vehicles across the world.
ARRB Group managing director Gerard Waldron said while high-profile trials of driverless cars are happening worldwide, tests specific to Australia are needed, not least because Australians drive on the left-hand side of the road, and have different road signs and markings.
He said he expects Australia will move to a largely driverless fleet of vehicles, with people opting for “mobility plans” where vehicles will pick them up at designated places and times, rather than owning their own cars.
“There is a whole generation coming through now who aren’t as focused on getting a driver’s licence as my generation was,” he said.
HOW DOES IT WORK?
Driverless cars use a mixture of sensors and digital maps to get around. Users would be able to enter a route into the car’s computer system for it to follow.
Once on the road, the vehicles use 3D laser-mapping, GPS and radar to analyse the car’s surroundings, including what colour the traffic lights are. Radar technology can see through objects, like pedestrians hiding behind a car who are about to run across the road. Google says it can see these things up to 200 metres away.
While cars such as Tesla’s Model S will be able to drive itself on highways without any input from the driver, the technology is not yet advanced enough to drive you home after a few drinks at the pub.
But Tesla CEO Elon Musk said he believes we are only a few years away from having fully-autonomous cars.
Speaking earlier this year at the GPU Technology Conference in California he said: “Autonomy is really about what level of reliability and safety do you want. Even with the current sensor suite, we could make the car go fully autonomous, but not to a level of reliability that would be safe in, say, a complex urban environment where (…) children are playing,” Musk said.
But he added that: “I almost view it as a solved problem. We know exactly what to do, and we’ll be there in a few years.”
Studies have shown that over 90 per cent of car accidents are caused by human error. Driverless cars with their computers and sensors are programmed to scan and only do an action if there is no possibility whatsoever of an accident.
The hype behind self driving cars from the likes of Google, Tesla and Mercedes-Benz isn’t just because people are too lazy to drive themselves, but for the genuine possibility of fatality-free roads.
Google’s cars have been in 11 accidents since they’ve been on the road, however Google claims that none of them were the driverless cars’ fault.
Mr Waldron said online studies from the US had found Australian respondents were nervous about the idea of sitting in a car without access to a steering wheel or control pedals.
“But they don’t appear to be as nervous about one being in traffic beside them,” he said.
WHAT ARE THE RISKS?
It’s not all positive, and some have already highlighted the risks involved in computerised vehicles.
This week security and motoring experts warned drivers of the Jeep Cherokee to install a software update after hackers used a flaw in a car’s infotainment system to force it off the road.
According to Wired, white-hat hackers were able to take control of the vehicle while it was driving on the highway at 100km/h. The potential for hackers to disrupt traffic would increase dramatically if there were more computerised cars on the road.