I’ve driven on Australian roads for long enough to know that Australia is full of terrible drivers.
We change lanes compulsively, tailgate, merge badly, run red lights, get angry about traffic and increasingly these days, fiddle with our mobile phones.
So I’m not at all freaked out about the fact that I’m sitting inside a driverless car that is cruising along the freeway at up to 70 km/h, slowing down then speeding up again and turning with the road’s curves at the direction of a machine and not the hands of the man in the driver’s seat.
He’s waving them in the air as we purr along Adelaide’s Southern Expressway in a Volvo XC90, explaining the technology that is letting us experience the first ever on-road drive by driverless vehicles in the southern hemisphere.
At the push of a paddle, the car takes control of acceleration, braking and steering, Volvo’s Trent Victor explains, but the driver remains in ultimate control, because at the push of the same paddle he can resume driving manually.
“It’s up to the driver to say, I want to drive autonomously, so I push the paddle, I delegate to the vehicle,” Mr Victor says. “And … although you will see in today’s system that they keep lane centring and the distance from the vehicle [in front], you are the back-up.”
This test drive is part of the Australian Driverless Vehicles Initiative and is taking place in highly controlled conditions, on a road that has been closed off to general traffic.
This is because of what humans with their bad driving habits might do while interacting with the autonomous vehicles, not the other way around, researchers involved in the trial insist.
A person died on Melbourne’s roads almost once every three days last year.
Gerard Waldron, managing director of ARRB Group, said the day driverless cars go mainstream will be the day a death on the road becomes a very rare event.
“We know that about 90 per cent of deaths and injuries on the road are caused by human error, and so what we’re expecting to see is a big reduction in human error when machines are making those sorts of decisions,” Mr Waldron said.
“I don’t think I’d be suggesting that there will never be anybody killed by a driverless car but Volvo is actually saying no one is going to die in a Volvo past 2020.”
It is expected that driverless cars still have years to wait before hitting the market.
Saturday’s demonstration was as much a public relations exercise designed to showcase autonomous vehicles to the Australian public as anything else, and South Australian premier Jay Weatherill freely admitted the state was attempting to position itself in the box seat with the emerging technology.
The leap to fully autonomous vehicles will first require the approval of governments, which have to pass laws to permit them to mix with everyday traffic.
The South Australian government has got the jump on the rest of the country in this regard, eager to find a foothold in the future of automotive technology as it faces the loss of thousands of jobs with the impending death of large-scale car manufacturing in the state.
It is so far the only Australian state to have moved to update its road laws to allow driverless vehicles on its roads.
“This is an opportunity for South Australia to be a leader and create the jobs of the future, although it won’t be for everybody and it won’t be anything that is going to happen any time soon,” Mr Weatherill said.
Also present at the demonstration was federal Labor MP for Perth, Alannah MacTiernan, who warned that Australia needed to move quickly to ensure it had the communications capability to handle the emergence of driverless cars.
This included beefing up satellite power to improve GPS capabilities and reserving dedicated bandwidth on the radio spectrum, as driverless cars will require constant wireless communication with each other and with the wider transport system, Ms MacTiernan said.