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No sign of autonomous vehicles in NZ

While investors, software developers and car manufacturers pour billions into developing technology for autonomous vehicles, they're not likely to be seen on our roads for many years.

autonomous beca Richard Young

No rush for AVs in New Zealand

Technology developed from research into autonomous vehicles (AVs) is making driving safer. But fully operational, production runs of self-driving vehicles are a very, very long way down the road, according to various car manufacturers, IT experts and technical specialists such as Richard Young of New Zealand-based engineering and technology consultants, Beca.

“As a civil engineer, I’ve been building highways and their infrastructure for 35 years. To bring all our roads, or even some of them, up to a standard that would support fully autonomous vehicles would take a massive investment, and who is going to pay for that?” Richard is a technical director with Beca, specialising in smart sensing systems, and with an interest in AV development.

Good roads needed

To drive safely, AVs need roads in good condition, with clear and consistent road markings. Richard says, “Our expressways and parts of the main state highways meet these requirements. However, if AVs are to travel outside these areas, we would need to cover far more roads with markings and these would need to be readable in all light and weather conditions.

“I also don’t see the appetite, or budget, for lots of sensors being added to our infrastructure to assist AVs to drive safely. Currently we don’t have the vehicles that would benefit from that, we have a lot of older vehicles here in New Zealand.” Platooning, where technology allows trucks to automatically travel closely together to cut wind resistance and save fuel is one advantage that AVs can deliver. “However, again, I don’t see truck platooning being widely deployed in New Zealand, given our challenging road alignments, gradients and limited overtaking opportunities. This all makes truck platooning complex to achieve in practice.”

Urban driving

One common belief is that as more and more vehicles are fitted with automated safety features, such as forward-looking radar and emergency braking, other road users (eg pedestrians and cyclists) will increasingly rely on those vehicles to slow down or stop if they get too close.

“Humans don’t expect that an autonomous vehicle should be allowed to injure them – if it can stop it must stop,” says Richard.

Not ready for AVs

If, or when, there are large numbers of fully autonomous vehicles on our city streets, the question is, how will the urban environment change? Will AVs be so good at avoiding people that cyclists, scooter riders and pedestrians could all use the streets, at their own pace, in the knowledge the AVs will stay out of their way? How does a pedestrian at a crossing or a cyclist wanting to change lanes make eye contact with an AV? If we aren’t prepared to make AVs always give way to people, are cities going to be able to afford to separate these vehicles completely from pedestrians and cyclists?

Richard asks, “How much extra smart infrastructure would we have to put on urban roads to make up for people not being fully attentive to the AV they are in charge of? And who will pay?

“Autonomous, or smart vehicles appear to be increasingly targeted at fixed routes and restricted areas. On open roads they seem to operate best when all the traffic is going the same way, there are plenty of markings, and few surprises. But to take that vehicle off an expressway onto an off-ramp with traffic lights and have it work out where pedestrians and cyclists are crossing? I’m just not sure the level of autonomy manufacturers are talking about is going to give you that level of sophistication. There is a growing gap between what manufacturers are looking at delivering and what customers are expecting,” he adds.

Investing in a safer future on NZ’s roads

Richard says there is very little actual evidence to support the argument that AVs are any safer than human drivers. He questions spending big on technology to support autonomous vehicles in the belief they will make travelling safer.

“From a highway engineering perspective, barriers along the sides and down the middle of roads is one of best investments we can make. Barriers have been proven to make our roads safer. It’s not high-tech, or new, but it is making a big difference.

“Add some of the smart safety technologies on newer cars and ongoing work to improve driver skills and we can make significant changes to the safety on roads – all without a robot in sight.”