The Volvo XC90 with driverless functionality being tested in Adelaide on 7 November.

More than 1000 people each year are killed in road accidents in Australia. Worldwide, the figure is 1.2 million. This is equivalent to around 15 aircrafts of 250 people falling from the sky every day. We would never accept these statistics for air traffic, but on the ground it is somehow regarded as an acceptable price paid for the convenience and freedom cars provide.

These sobering statistics, however, are one of the reasons why, in the not too distant future, driving as we now know it will most likely be illegal, relegated to custom racetracks for thrill seekers wanting to experience a wild relic of the past.

This vision of the future was delivered by experts in driverless vehicle technology speaking ahead of the Southern Hemisphere’s first on-road trial of driverless vehicles happening in Adelaide this weekend (7 November).

South Australia became the first Australian state to introduce legislation enabling testing of driverless cars in September, as part of its push to become a high-tech hub and innovation leader. The trial will see researchers testing highly autonomous vehicles on a closed-off stretch of the Southern Expressway in Adelaide, interacting with other vehicles (driven by researchers) to test responses to a variety of common road situations.

Part of the Australian Driverless Vehicle Initiative, led by research body ARRB Group, the goal is to make sure Australia has the systems in place to become an early adopter of fully autonomous car technology. The fear is that without substantial change, Australia could fall behind, in the unenviable position of importing cars with advanced driverless features that will then have to be switched off.

But early adopter or not, what’s certain is that fully autonomous cars are set to disrupt our very notions of transport provision, and alter everything from urban design to building construction and work patterns. And its predicted this will happen within 15 years.

Environmental benefits

In terms of sustainability, driverless cars promise myriad benefits.

First is the move from cars as a product to a service. Cars spend the vast majority of their lives unused, meaning inefficient use of space for parking (in buildings and on roads) and wasted materials for construction.

Artificial intelligence expert Professor Toby Walsh from the University of NSW says that instead of taking up space on roads or car parks, cars could be rented out as taxis while we work, or we could forego the notion of car ownership altogether, relying on services from “mobility providers”. Indeed, the idea of cars being utilised for more than two hours a day is why the car parks of many new buildings are being constructed with higher-than-minimum ceiling heights, so they can be repurposed as the need for large-scale parking becomes redundant. And it’s why we could see a big boost in public space as the cars that line our streets start to disappear.

According to research from the OECD’s International Transport Forum on urban mobility, the move to a service-based driverless transport system could drastically decrease the number of vehicles on our roads while delivering the same level of mobility.

The research found that even without public transport or ride sharing, a shift to service-based driverless cars would cut the number of cars needed by 23 per cent at peak time.

Though teamed with rapid public transport and the ability to share car trips with other passengers, it found the need for cars would drop dramatically. Under this scenario, overall 90 per cent of cars could be taken off our roads. At peak time there would be 65 per cent fewer vehicles on the road.

Driverless cars could slash the number of vehicles needed to provide current levels of mobility. Source: International Transport Forum
Driverless cars could slash the number of vehicles needed to provide current levels of mobility. Source: International Transport Forum

Considering congestion is expected to cost the Australian economy $53.3 billion a year by 2031, it would be a huge boost to productivity, not to mention a great reduction in pollutants, including carbon dioxide, of which light vehicles currently contribute 10 per cent of national emissions (and with a move to electric vehicles, at-source pollution could become a thing of the past).

There’s also a congestion benefit separate from the reduction in the number of cars on the road, thanks to the precision of driverless cars.

At the University of Sydney’s recent Festival of Urbanism, it was shown that as driverless car proportions increase, so too does the capacity of our roads.

Current highway capacity for human drivers is roughly 2200 vehicles per hour per lane, University of Sydney senior lecturer in infrastructure management Dr Matthew Beck said.

“This is because humans are pretty crappy drivers and we’ve got to travel with roughly 40-50 metres space between the cars,” he said.

“At 120km/h, with 100 per cent autonomous vehicles, you can increase the road capacity to 12,000 vehicles per hour travelling within six metres of each other.”

Infrastructure rethink needed

The rapid advance of the technology means that long-term infrastructure plans, based on our old conception of transport, may need rethinking.

Our politicians are starting to take notice. NSW transport minister Andrew Constance recently said transport planners would need to prepare for driverless cars and reassess investment priorities within the next decade.

“The technology is around the corner, it will be here within five to 10 years, so we are going to have to do an enormous amount of work very quickly,” Mr Constance was reported as saying in the AFR.

“I don’t want to see governments making multibillion-dollar investments and then it turns out that with the advent of driverless cars, we’ve made the wrong decision.”

Taking the ITF findings into account, this could mean more spent on public transport and less spent on multibillion-dollar road projects like WestConnex or Perth Freight Link, as driverless cars could solve the congestion problems these roads are supposed to fix.

Safety benefits

As mentioned, one of driverless cars’ biggest benefits is in a predicted reduction in road fatalities.

Gerard Waldron
Gerard Waldron

According to ARRB Group managing director Gerard Waldron, 90 per cent of car accidents are attributable to human error and a move to driverless cars could “remove some of the carnage”.

He told The Fifth Estate the economic cost to Australia of road accidents was currently $27 billion a year.

Eliminating up to 90 per cent of crashes, deaths and injuries would thus have a large economic benefit, as well as ameliorating devastating social impacts.

It is these figures that make the experts certain that driving manually will become a thing of the past in most situations.

Commenting on the possibility of driving manually becoming illegal, Professor Walsh said: “I well imagine there will be a day where we consider it too dangerous to drive a high-speed missile on your own without the full benefits that autonomy bring you.

“We’re going to look back in 20-30 years and wonder why we let people drive such dangerous vehicles.”

Mr Waldron, however, said he thought it would be economic and convenience factors, rather than punitive measures, that would be the major driver of change.

Sweden is leading the charge towards a driverless society, which it sees as a necessary component of its ambitious goal of no road deaths. In fact, the level of autonomy being demonstrated this weekend in Adelaide is set to be legal for Swedish drivers on some highways from 2017, who according to Mr Waldron will be “reading a book” while on the Gothenburg ring road.

Victoria has recently set itself similar goals, with its “Towards Zero” campaign.

“If we’re not aiming for zero, we’re saying to ourselves that there is an acceptable level of road trauma,” Victorian Roads Minister Luke Donnellan said. “The loss of just one person on our roads is simply one too many.”

Total transformation

Mr Waldron told The Fifth Estate driverless cars were the biggest transport disruption to occur in over a century.

“The introduction of the car was a pretty big disruption. I think this will be even bigger.”

He said it would transform urban design – with vast amounts of public land freed up – and also the way we work.

“You’re getting back your travelling time, so you can spend it on billing work or recreation – whatever you like.”

Associated industries like insurance will be shaken up too.

According to Swinburne University of Technology associate professor Hussein Dia, with the reduction in vehicle accidents, insurance premiums could be reduced by 75 per cent. Liability will shift from drivers to manufacturers, software companies and mobility providers.

“Not everyone is going to be excited by this technology,” he said.

But if you’re sceptical about the magnitude of the transformation coming, just look at the capabilities of the players jumping into the arena.

Google's driverless car
Google’s driverless car

The world’s largest and fourth-largest companies by market capitalisation, Apple and Google, both have ambitions to take over the driverless tech space. Their histories point to the potential of transformation. For example, Apple’s iPhone has only been around since 2007, and in under 10 years has helped reshape the telecommunications industry. Google was only founded in 1998, and in less than 20 years has become a world leader in search, online advertising, cloud computing and software development.

Even car manufacturers, responding to an impending decline in manufacturing rates, are joining up.

While Mr Waldron said there was no study he was aware of looking at the proportion of people who will give up ownership of a vehicle and subscribe to a service arrangement, an announcement of a driverless limousine service by Daimler chief executive Dieter Zetsche is instructive.

“Mercedes is looking at having a driverless limousine service – a car manufacturer moving into mobility rather than selling cars,” Mr Waldron said.

“Most car companies wanting to survive will have to become mobility providers.”

The drawbacks

While the driverless car future looks rosy, there are still issues that need ironing out.

ARRB Group’s chief scientist – human factors Professor Michael Regan thinks there could be many unintended consequences of driverless cars.

One is “skill degradation”, where people could become reliant on driverless cars and lose the ability to manually take over. Driverless vehicles, Professor Regan said, are “not yet 100 per cent reliable in all driving scenarios”, so this poses a serious problem.

One other drawback could be an increase in motion sickness, which can be experienced by those not in control of a vehicle’s movement. Professor Regan said there was evidence that up to 10 per cent of American adults could be susceptible to motion sickness in driverless cars.

The most contentious drawback is the major threat of hacking. In May, researchers funded by the US Defense Department were able to hack into a driverless car system and crash it. Software companies will need to ensure their technology is safe from attack before the community will get on board.

Australia needs to be prepared

Mr Waldron said one of the goals of this weekend’s trial is to get the people who formulate transport regulation to get driverless cars on their forward work program.

“Part of the reason Australia needs to be on the front foot is that we do have unique features in our environment,” he said.

For example, driverless cars will need to know how to recognise a kangaroo, deal with the different road signs and line markings, and operate on the other side of the road to the countries in which most work on driverless cars is currently being performed.

“If [these features] are not accommodated it will create headaches during the implementation phase.”

Community acceptance is another big step, and part of what Saturday’s trial is geared towards changing.

“The aim is to help form some public opinion and conversation around [driverless vehicles],” Mr Waldron said, “and to create more awareness, more preparedness and more acceptance.”

South Australia is hosting the International Driverless Cars Conference to coincide with the trial.

Telstra will be livestreaming demonstrations from inside one of the vehicles on Saturday.

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  1. “There is a tide in the affairs of men which taken at the flood leads on to fortune, omitted all the voyage of their days is bound in shallows and in misery. On such a full sea are we now afloat and we must take the current when it serves or lose our ventures” – Shakespeare

    The world is changing whether we like it or not and we should embrace this technology and take part in the process now so that Australia can have a say in how this technology is used. I for one think this is a very exciting new space for intelligent innovative thinkers to take part in what may well be the biggest change to our way of life since the internet. Exciting times people let’s get on board!

  2. We have driverless service cars now – they are called taxis. And they are time- unreliable, expensive, and frquently impossible to find. Why would any other services be any better? Great for oldies who cannot drive anymore, but that is about it. Everything else would be a lot better served by hugely better public transport (electric buses) running frequently whole day and most of the night, crossing over paths so one can change from one to another without having to take trek of half an hour between different modes. Also higher density of living so we don’t need to travel 35km from dinner out to home. Personally, I wouldn’t be giving up my little Yaris any time soon.

  3. Clearly, this sort of technology is the way of the future (in some form); however, disappointing that so little space is given to balancing the arguments by talking about the wider range of potential cons. These could include:
    1) Reduced active transport because of the door-to-door convenience and speed (all things being equal) of AVs, especially if there is a widespread fleet
    2) More space given over to single or low occupancy vehicles because of the convenience factor and less patronage of mass transit (an offset to the roadspace efficiency benefit that AVs may yield)
    3) A return in part to sprawl and negative effects on urban affordability because of the spatial reach of AVs and ability for those being driven to engage in in-vehicle pursuits (emails, social media etc) rather than driving (e.g. transport could become productive time)
    4) System failure whether or not this is a product of hacking. The more complex and tightly coupled systems are, the higher the possibility of failures that cannot be detected/ traced to origin and fixed
    5) Handover of kerbside space to pick-up and drop-off. This might actually lead to a need for multi-lane roads where they otherwise wouldn’t be required to avoid drop-off/ pick-ups affecting throughput
    6) Massive cost burden to cities of providing ‘smart tech’, maintaining it and paying subscriptions to software and hardware companies to operate it.

    1. Ryan
      You raise some good points, but whether they are all ‘cons’ is debatable. More urban sprawl would be undesirable if built on the status quo. But shared, driverless, electric, carbon fibre cars might only need 2 metre wide, one-way tarmacs that could radically change future suburban forms. An opportunity also to re-think stormwater management.

  4. Another transformation that would flow logically from the driverless car is the carbon fibre car, following the revolution in bicycle design. The advent of the air-bag has made the notion of the solid steel cage redundant. Steel framed cars are logical to car sellers, since they allow cars to be sold at a lower price point. But mobility providers will have a greater focus on running costs, and hence lighter frames and bodies.

    And flowing on from that, reduced road maintenance and reduced tarmac depth and width in new suburban roads.