Hands-off future awaits Aussie drivers

FILE - This May 13, 2014 file photo shows a row of Google self-driving Lexus cars at a Google event outside the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif. Of the nearly 50 self-driving cars rolling around California roads and highways, four have gotten into accidents since September, 2014. That’s when the state officially began permitting these cars of the future, which use sensors and computing power to maneuver around traffic. Three accidents involved souped-up Lexus SUVs run by Google Inc. The fourth was an Audi retrofitted by the parts supplier Delphi Automotive. Google and Delphi said the accidents were minor and their cars were not at fault.(AP Photo/Eric Risberg, File)

By Peter Trute
Sydney
(Australian Associated Press)

The era of road rage, speeding fines and arguments over directions is nearing its end: the driverless car is coming to Australia.

Self-guiding vehicles will take to the road in South Australia in November in the nation’s first public road trial of the future of driving.

Under controlled conditions, driverless Volvos will travel down a 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.

ARRB Group managing director Gerard Waldron says while high-profile trials of driverless cars are happening worldwide – such as those by Google in the US – 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.

But the trials in November – over just a few days – are also aimed at harnessing enthusiasm for autonomous car technology in Australia.

“The major thing we are looking for from the trial is for everyone to have an understanding of the potential of these vehicles,” Mr Waldron told AAP.

“Over time we will develop these to the point where trials become more adventurous.”

Mr Waldron said the Australian trials are “vehicle agnostic” and are about ensuring vehicles perform in the local road environment, rather than the vehicles themselves.

Mr Waldron 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.

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.

The South Australian trials, on Adelaide’s Southern Expressway, 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.

South Australian Royal Automobile Association general manager of public affairs Penny Gale says by 2020, all new cars will 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.

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