Driverless cars – coming soon to a road near you?

Anthony Caruana
9 November, 2015
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The local automotive industry, as we know it, may be spiralling towards a slow death but our ongoing need for cars isn’t waning. Last week, the Australian Road Research Board (ARRB), gave Australians a glimpse of modern motoring as driverless cars hit Australian roads for the very first time in Adelaide.

ARRB group managing director, Gerard Waldron, says, “This demonstration marks the first of a series of research and field trials nationally to identify and assess what needs to be done to make driverless cars appropriate in an Australian context, with particular emphasis on those human factors that are often encountered behind the wheel.”

Reportedly the first trial of its type in the southern hemisphere, the demonstrations were conducted in a driverless Volvo XC90 on a closed, controlled section of Adelaide’s Southern Expressway.

“We brought together a range of industry, government and academic partners from around the world and closer to home, and particularly appreciate the efforts and involvement of the South Australian Government and Volvo to make this happen,” says Waldron.

The vehicles travelled at speeds of up to 70 kilometres per hour and the addition of a ‘pace car’ (standard vehicle) to simulate traffic showed how the driverless vehicle technology interacts with other road users and adapts to changing conditions.

Last month, Tesla released a software update that allows the Model S to automatically steer, change lanes and park. Given the number of Tesla charging points that are appearing – a car park I use in Melbourne’s CBD has spaces with power outlets set aside for Tesla owners – and the rapidly improving software and sensors that make driverless vehicles possible, I’m pretty sure it won’t be long until the Government will get interested and start looking at the legal frameworks.

Recent trials by Google of driverless and autonomous cars ran into, if you’ll pardon the pun, a serious problem – human drivers. When a car stopped to allow a pedestrian to cross a road safely, a vehicle driven by a human slammed into the back of Google’s vehicle.

There are also some significant ethical issues to consider.

There can be situations where an accident is unavoidable. Should we trust software and sensors to make a decision about the needs of the one against the needs of the many? In other words, in a worst case scenario, whose life should an autonomous car put in danger? The driver or someone outside the car? What if there are multiple passengers in the car and parties outside at risk?

There are clearly some strong cases for autonomous vehicle activity. Parking, reversing along narrow paths and other more challenging manoeuvres can probably be executed using sensors more effectively than by humans.

But at 100 kilometres per hour on a busy highway, are you ready to trust your life to hardware and software engineers?

We don’t have to decide that just yet. But by the end of this decade, it’s something all drivers are going to be thinking about.

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