Public transport and trucking fleets are likely to lead the self-driving vehicle transport revolutionby Fiona Rotherham
Self-driving vehicles are becoming a reality, and public transport and trucking fleets are likely to lead the way.
Autonomous vehicles have attracted a lot of hype, although when they’ll appear on the market remains hazy. Volkswagen expects this to happen as early as 2019; other commentators predict the mid-2020s.
Some companies are taking a revolutionary approach in developing fully automated cars from the ground up, whereas others are incrementally adding advanced driver-assistance systems, such as automated braking, to existing technology, according to a recent UK government discussion paper on preparing the country for driverless cars.
“It’s unclear when either approach will deliver a truly driverless car that people can buy or use. Experts think this could be any time from the mid-2020s onwards,” the paper says. “What is clear is that vehicles, which can be parked within line of sight by remote control or pilot themselves with human oversight on high-speed roads such as motorways, will be available for sale in the next two to four years.”
Public debate on the safety of self-driving cars followed a fatal crash in June of a person operating a Tesla with its autopilot system engaged – the car’s sensors failed to detect a white articulated lorry crossing the road under a brightly lit sky. While US federal authorities investigate the crash, Tesla and other auto manufacturers continue to argue automated driving technologies will ultimately make vehicles safer and help avoid accidents.
In New Zealand, autonomous driving is tipped for public transport ahead of private cars. Wellington Airport is doing a feasibility study in the next year on using self-driving shuttles within the airport grounds. Auckland International Airport has reviewed the technology and decided against trials at this stage.
Transport manager Pippi Kettle says Wellington Airport is considering Easymile’s EZ10 Shared Driverless Vehicles, which operate autonomously without even a steering wheel. EZ10s are designed for last-mile travel, including looped routes, within confined areas such as industrial sites, airports and university campuses rather than the open road.
The 12-seater electric vehicles travel at low speeds and, unlike trams, require no special infrastructure. They follow a route mapped out for them, which they continually repeat, using navigation technologies to ensure they stay on course.
EZ10 shuttles are in use in a number of European countries, Singapore and California and will be in Japan from August. Easymile has been involved in Dutch trials of WEpod shuttle buses where for the first time a self-driving public vehicle drove with other traffic earlier this year.
Kettle says the airport is in the “very early stages” and the feasibility study will cover regulations, safety requirements and the EZ10s’ ability to operate on the existing shuttle route, including a roundabout.
Driverless trains have been operating for years overseas and “it’s only a matter of time” before self-driving reaches New Zealand’s bus sector, the Bus and Coach Association told the transport and industrial relations select committee’s inquiry into the future of mobility. Trials of driverless buses are under way in Perth, Singapore, Switzerland and the Netherlands using dedicated busways.
Association policy manager Jacob McElwee expects a New Zealand bus trial within the next five years, given that drivers account for 70% of bus companies’ operational costs. “It would lower costs for public transport and we could run 24/7,” he says.
In a submission to the inquiry, Opus International Consultants said the future of automated vehicles should focus on public transport as it could “substantively improve cost, reliability and service quality, enabling higher usage and levels of service”.
Opus said it would be “somewhat naive” to transform New Zealand’s cities to suit automated vehicles, especially private ones, as it’s unknown whether the public would welcome or resist them and it would probably be a long time before they replaced existing vehicles and became price competitive.
New Zealand should see automated vehicles on the road in the next five years, but wider uptake is probably 20 years out, says Opus smart mobility expert Louise Baker.
Ride-sharing company Uber, which has been testing a driverless car in Pittsburgh, told the select committee that automated vehicles “will be a decade away from being a main-street phenomenon” because of the new vehicle fleet and infrastructure required.
New Zealand may be slower off the mark than some countries given the average age of the car fleet is 14 years, says Automobile Association principal adviser Mark Stockdale. Only about 130,000 new vehicles are sold here annually, and imported Japanese vehicles about eight years old dominate the used-car market.
“It could really be decades before we see a significant amount of these vehicles on our roads,” Stockdale says. “We won’t fully realise the benefits of autonomous driving if half the fleet is driverless and half not.”
Transport Minister Simon Bridges wants New Zealand to be an early adopter of driverless cars and drones. Earlier this year, he released guidelines for testing automated vehicles, which he hopes will also encourage sales here once they’re commercially available.
The Ministry of Transport is in confidential discussions with several parties about staging tests in New Zealand and Bridges is still optimistic he will see driverless vehicles “doing things” here this year. “It hasn’t happened yet, but we are in fruitful talks.”
New Zealand’s laws don’t require a driver to be present for automated vehicles to be used on the road, although any trial requires an approved safety management plan.
Bridges sees public transport, along with light and heavy transport fleets, as the earliest adopters of self-driving – a view backed by a recent McKinsey paper that said on-highway trucks will probably be the first vehicles to have the full autonomous technology on public roads.
Prototypes already exist, and in the long term, automated commercial fleets may include vehicles for parcel delivery as well as automated drones, which several companies are already testing, McKinsey says.
Bridges says Auckland’s transport planners looking at mass transit systems to deal with an increasing population should consider this type of new technology rather than requiring “significant investment in the ground”.
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