In March 2016, a Tesla Model S cruised across the Auckland Harbour Bridge while the 'driver' sat with his hands off the steering wheel and the car did all the work.
Co-Founder of IT firm, SilverStripe, Sigurd Magnusson was showcasing that driverless technology can be executed on New Zealand roads. "I wanted kiwis to see that the technology is here and it's very exciting," he said.
Since then, a driverless trial took place in Tauranga as part of Trafinz's National Transport Conference and the first on-road testing of a New Zealand-made driver-less vehicle will begin at Christchurch airport in the next few months. The trials will begin on private roads, with the long-term aim of moving to public roads once the safety case has been made and all regulatory approvals are in place.
Intelligent Transport provider, HMI Technologies has bought a French Navya 15-person shuttle for the trial. The vehicle is fully autonomous, has no steering wheel and is electric powered.
"We hope to eventually see autonomous vehicles operating in and around the airport. Before that could happen, we want to understand the infrastructure and operating requirements for these vehicles, to understand the human/technology interface and to build the safety case for autonomous vehicles on our campus. The trial vehicle being electric also fits well with the airport's sustainability objectives," says Christchurch Airport GM Corporate Affairs, Michael Singleton.
NZ versus the world
But, are we so far ahead of the rest of the world when it comes to sustainable and safe vehicle technology? Or does our vehicle fleet have a long way to go to meet up with the rest of the world?
As early as 2006, Tesla's CEO Elon Musk was discussing the idea of harnessing the power of the sun to power EV's and developing the idea of building self-driving vehicles. Meanwhile, Ford has been testing its autonomous vehicle technology on snow-covered roads and in mid-October 2015, Tesla rolled out version seven of its software in the US – this included autopilot capability.
In terms of autonomy, there are four levels of self-driving capabilities, from Level 0, where there is no autonomy and the driver is in complete control (which is where most NZ cars are at right now), through to Level four, where vehicles do all the driving and the passenger only needs to input the destination.
The future of self-driving and EV technology is being touted as a positive aspect because with a completely robotic solution, which is what the future is set to be, experts believe that both self-driving vehicles and the combination of Intelligent Transport Systems (ITS), will mean less collisions (autonomous vehicles and road sensors will be able to work together to ensure that vehicles don't collide and assure that human error can be erased completely).
In May of this year, BMW demonstrated a self-driving 7 Series that pedestrians could hail and direct to their destination via a tablet. This took place in a carpark in Germany as part of the company's autonomous Driving Campus, or development facility, outside of Munich.
Then there's the robot car that converts cartoon fantasies, like Transformers, into real life. The 3.7-metre tall two-seater robot – known as J-deite RIDE - can transform in a minute into a sports car. It can also walk at a speed of 100 metres per hour and run on its four wheels. While it's unlikely to be used on the roads any time soon, or ever, the CEO of Brave Robotics, Kenji Ishida said it is great inspiration for other developers and this type of technology will probably be used in the entertainment industry in the future.
The Dubai Police department is also way ahead when it comes to self-driving, robotic and futuristic transport options, with a hoverbike which is capable of flying five metres above the ground. The hoverbike is a cross between a drone and a motorbike and can either operate remotely or carry a police officer on its back. The Dubai Police has also revealed plans to deploy self-driving miniature vehicles which have been designed by Singapore-based ActiV Technology’s digital arm Otsaw Digital. The vehicles will feature facial recognition cameras, live video broadcasting and drone software.
Meanwhile, in the Phoenix Arizona, people of all ages are using Waymo's (the competitor to Uber) self-driving minivans to get to and from their destination. The pilot programme is operating within a small area and operated by Alphabet – which owns Google.
The United Kingdom is also getting in on the automation bandwagon also with one man inventing the first self-driving motorbike. Developer, Torquil Ross-Martin says the motorbike is currently being used to teach driverless cars about the behaviour of bikes.
Stan the robot valet is another amazing piece of technology, developed by French startup, Stanley Robotics, has designed a system which has already been adopted by Charles ee Gaulle Airport in Paris and picks up a customer's vehicle and takes it to a secure car park.
The system is also connected to the customer's flight details, so their car is ready to be picked up when they return, and it can also maximize space by double parking in front of vehicles that don't need to be picked up immediately.
But self-driving technology will go nowhere without the Intelligent Transport Systems (ITS) to back them up. This means that roads and vehicles will need to be set up with sensors and other integral systems to ensure that vehicles can talk to each other and avoid collisions. Startup mapping technology provider, RideOS, is just one of the businesses working on ITS systems - developing software to guide self-driving cars to handle road scenarios such as road works.
While businesses worldwide are investing in the next 'big thing' when it comes to autonomous transport and robotic vehicles, there are still fears that the technology is not quite there yet and according to a survey by the American Automobile Association (AAA), 73 per cent of U.S. drivers said they would be afraid to ride in a self-driving vehicle, a 10 per cent jump from 63 per cent in October of last year.
This is partly thanks to a few accidents which have taken place during self-driving test drives, such as the most recent accident, which happened in March and involved an Uber car which drove into a pedestrian in Arizona.
While, there certainly have been accidents during the testing phase, experts still say that autonomous driving is the safer option and the accidents which take place daily, all over the world, are not reported on.
Kevin Curran, senior member of the IEEE and lecturer at the University of Ulster, says that unlike humans "computers don't get bored, tired or distracted because they want to change the radio station or send a text message".
According to the US Department of Transportation's National Motor Vehicle Crash Causation Survey, 94 per cent of road accidents are caused by human error, and it is said that driverless technology will drastically lower, if not eliminate this factor. Google, for instance - which tested self-driving cars, has managed over 700,000 autonomous miles without any collisions.
Along with the safety aspect, there has been discussion surrounding whether children born in this decade will ever need to sit their driver's licenses – if they don't need to drive a car in the future. Also, whether there will be any laws against getting in a car while drunk, if the car is driving you.
Whatever the rules, it is certain that the future of transport technology will be a lot more automated. While level four self-driving vehicles are not on the road quite yet, governments all over the world are currently working out laws, rules and regulations to ensure that they are ready for the future. With some betting that autonomous vehicles could be on the roads by 2020, the future is very close!