Automated, autonomous, driverless or self-driving – whatever you want to call them cars that can drive without the interaction of a human are increasingly talked about as the next big thing in transport and the Ministry has recently highlighted what’s happening in New Zealand around them.

They say that while the talk going around is about fully autonomous vehicles, there are actually different levels of it and increasing levels of technology are already in some cars. A good description of the different technology levels comes from the United States National Highway Traffic Safety Administration which breaks things down to five levels as shown below. It’s noted that other jurisdictions have similar classifications.

Levels of vehicle automation identified by NHTSA

As for actually implementing driverless cars they note that they will pose a number of challenges although one advantage is they likely mean there is no need to change existing roads. Instead the challenges are more likely to be policy/requirement related

The Ministry of Transport has a work programme to clarify the current legal situation that applies to the deployment of autonomous vehicles in New Zealand. Section 4.14 (page 25) of the government’s Intelligent Transport Systems (ITS) Technology Action Plan [PDF, 431 KB]specifically relates to autonomous vehicles. This includes the following action:

Government actions to promote New Zealand internationally as a test-bed for new technologies

The Ministry of Transport, in conjunction with the NZ Transport Agency, will review transport legislation to clarify the legality of testing driverless cars in New Zealand. This will specifically consider the issues of liability associated with testing, but will not consider liability for general use.

The work programme has a range of possible outcomes – one being a law to set requirements for driverless vehicles. However, there are no immediate plans to do this. The relevant excerpt from Section 4.14 of the ITS Action Plan reads:

Internationally there is a great deal of thought being given to what laws will be necessary for the general operation of driverless vehicles. Their widespread operation will pose complex legal challenges, especially to determine liability in the event of any accident. It is not proposed that the New Zealand government will explicitly look at these legal issues at this time. Rather, the government will continue to monitor international developments and draw on this knowledge once international thinking has developed further and it is clearer if or when these vehicles will be commercially available.

One interesting thing I’ve been noticing with the driverless car debate is that many countries, states and cities all seem to be falling over themselves to be the test-bed for these new technologies – presumably in the hope that some of the big players will turn up invest money. The MoT say they have started to look at the legal issues associated with testing these vehicles. However they also say there are “no obvious legal barriers” towards testing driverless cars as “NZ Law has no explicit requirement in our laws for a driver to present”. Despite this the MoT say there have been no formal requests to test driverless cars on our roads.

While the MoT seem to be mostly thinking about how the legal issues of testing driverless cars, perhaps they should also start to have a think about other associated issues too. Some of these are highlighted quite well in a few pieces I’ve read recently.

The Ethical issues

There’s a greater issue that just liability should an incident occur but a debate that needs be decided about how driverless cars deal with accidents in the first place. This article highlights the issue well

He soon came to see both its significance and its painful complexity. For example, when an accident is unavoidable, should a driverless car be programmed to aim for the smallest object to protect its occupant? What if that object turns out to be a baby stroller? If a car must choose between hitting a group of pedestrians and risking the life of its occupant, what is the moral choice? Does it owe its occupant more than it owes others?

When human drivers face impossible dilemmas, choices are made in the heat of the moment and can be forgiven. But if a machine can be programmed to make the choice, what should it be?

Coming up with an answer to these issues could have wide ranging implications for society – but then again we’ve changed society in the past in the way we allowed vehicles to dominate our cities. The implication of driverless cars on cities is the next point

Are we solving the wrong problem?

A great piece from Peter Norton, the author of Fighting Traffic highlights that driverless cars could be fantastic and fix many of the issues we associate with our auto-dominated society – which he says came about because we focused on how best to move cars and not what is best for people or the city. Unfortunately he says that if we don’t address the issue of what we want our cities to be then driverless cars could actually make our auto-dependency worse.

In autonomous vehicles and other intelligent transportation systems, we may have a solution so powerful that we fail to pause and ask what problem such systems are best suited to solving. We may fail to ask whether the problem formulation we inherited is the right one.

If engineers continue to seek to accommodate all of motorists demands, and f they accommodate such demands much more efficiently, each car may make much more efficient use of road and parking capacity, but total demands may rise so much that even more space will be needed for road surface and for parking. In the fully autonomous vehicle, as the driver need pay little or no attention to driving, driving time may become work or play time in effect negating the time cost of travel. Autonomous cars might also safely travel much faster. Such changes might turn the 50-mile commute of today into the 100-mile commute of tomorrow. Today, people trying to travel by other modes such as walking or bicycling must contend with urban sprawl governed drivers perceptions of distance. How will they reckon with distances that have doubled again? Presumably many of them too will resort to driving. However reluctantly they turn to it, their decision will be taken as a vote for driving. Finally, as the skill demands of driving fall well have more drivers. Such trends would mean that we would continue to rebuild the world for drivers, instead of asking what world we want to live in and conforming driving to it.

If we do get the right implementation of driverless cars then the impact they could have is absolutely transformative.

The transformative potential?

This piece from Vox looks at some of the massive potential driverless cars offer. He openly says he’s being a bit utopian in his thinking on some of the benefits that could be delivered. These include that we can “right-size” both vehicles and the infrastructure needed to support them such as roads and parking. Doing that could mean more space made available for people. They also could fix the suburbs, freeing up space and allowing more development to occur all while improving air quality (assuming they’re electric).

The piece also notes that this utopia is a long way off. There are a lot of vested interests in the transport system and many of those will be reluctant to change forcing path dependence along a route we don’t necessarily want. The article also highlights that there are likely to be some substantial privacy implications.

But “smart” means information, and a city filled with sensors and trackers will accumulate a lot of information about every citizen within it. Who owns that information? Who can access it? How much will basic services like transportation hinge on the surrender of personal data? How will all that data be protected from the copious cybersecurity threats that face smart cities?

As people continue to look closer at driverless vehicles they will also continue to see there are a lot of issues that needs to be addressed. As such it could be some time before we really start seeing any serious driverless car proposals.

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  1. I was half way writing through what I think things will look like in 20 years, but I stopped because I have no idea. Either things will stay the same and people will just eat breakfast in the car listening to Mike Hoskingbot, commuting on 20 lane highways from Hamilton to Auckland for work or a real shift will happen in terms of how people get around. If that involves ‘feeders’ to rapid transit, reduced need for on street parking will depend on the companies and the services they provide or something else entirely, I don’t know.

    I am perhaps just limited in my imagination, but I fear that the first case feels more likely, especially in New Zealand.

    How does the early internet compare to what it is now?

  2. There is another angle to throw in the mix. Driverless and maintenance free cars may in the future not actually be individually owned. This would be good for current owners and for future dwelling parking requirements. There may be less real estate needed. I anticipate these vehicles to be available on demand. Nothing to be afraid of. Actually instead of calling them ‘cars’ and having the anti car brigade jumping up and down why dont we simply call them ‘shared transport’ which is what they will be.

      1. Taxis are the correct name, but not very sexy. People will have the same problem with driverless cars as with taxis, none are available when you want one. The only improvement will be at night as there will be no driver who wants to go home to his family.

        1. A great deal changes however when the most expensive, and for many the least enjoyable, part of the taxi is no longer their; the driver.

          But you’re right, once taxis are significantly cheaper the issue becomes availability, or rather access to the the streets for these things in quantity. A situation I’m predicting will ultimately be resolved by the removal of their human powered rivals from many if not most public roads.

          1. Is it really a fundamental change, or is it just getting a bit cheaper?

            Will we have an oversupply fleet of driverless taxis waiting to move everyone at peak times, or like regular taxis will they be everywhere when nobody needs one and nowhere when everyone does. And will the be stationed and waiting in every suburban corner, or will you have to wait half an hour for one to come pick you up, and possibly be charged extra for the dead run out there?

            Taxi drivers are lucky to make $20 a hour I imagine, is taking that out of the equation really revolutionary?

          2. I agree it depends on the real price difference, what will it be? But it’s not just what the driver is paid, it’s not hauling that weight around, it’s working the machines harder for longer hours, and co-ordinating them to maximise efficiency.

            So many variables, but take out the varied needs of a human at the centre of it and it is likely to be considerable. Considerably cheaper than Uber for example, to operate. But considerable more expensive than Uber to launch. As Uber uses the sunk cost of already owned vehicles…. the transition is likely very messy indeed, and likely to only possible by a big player or Transit Agency…../

          3. This makes me wonder why we don’t have an amazing and cheap taxi system already.

            Consider this, the main cost of drivers is the fact they spend so much time waiting around and comparatively little time carrying passengers. Likewise with the vehicles, there is no reason they can’t be utilised 24/7 as more than one driver can easily share the same fleet.

            So if we had lots of people taking taxis all the time, the drivers would spend almost all of their time carrying passengers, their downtime would be very small, the utilisation of vehicles very high, and taxis would cost a fraction of what they do today…. so why doesn’t it work already?

            My view is there are fundamental issues of geometry and physics that come with the service model that you can’t wish away with technology or good intentions. With our city form there will almost always be a dead run in one direction to go out to pick someone up, or return back. There will always be strong peak demands at certain times, and lean demands at other. It will always be slow to work your way into a suburban cul de sac and back out again. You’ll always have the trade off of paying the full cost personally, or wasting time and privacy to share a trip with someone else.

            My question is whether there actually is some sort of critical mass level where it ill suddenly work and all the fundamental drawbacks are overcome.

            Here is an interesting thought experiment to test the driverless taxi concept. What if we took a billion bucks and paid every taxi driver in Auckland’s wages for the next five years, pay them to be available whether they carry passengers or not. So no driver costs and full availability of the fleet 24/7. Passenger fares are simply marginal fuel/vehicle costs. Run all the same uber style booking and allocation systems. What happens? Is it the end of motoring and public transport as we know it?

          4. In Bangkok there are numerous tuk tuks because of their small size and low running costs, there are usually plenty available when you need one, because the drivers are operating in a low wage economy you are able to negotiate a relatively cheap fare. It was a good option to get around if you are travelling short distances. When I was in Bangkok I made good use of them. However the streets are still full of congestion especially at peak times. And because of this you will normally have to pay quite a bit extra because of the extra time the journey will take. Where available the subway system was a faster and cheaper way of getting to where you wanted to go.

          5. Precisely. It’s like in Port Villa in Vanuatu, about 90% the entire transport system in the city is a series of jitney style taxi vans that pick up and drop off anyway, share rides, and cost basically nothing (about $1 per person anywhere in the city). The pay earned by the driver is minimal, almost zero on the running costs. They are everywhere and always available… but it hasn’t fixed their transport system and it’s certainly not a nirvana.

    1. The same issue will still remain for folks who don’t like PT; some people just don’t like sharing personal space with strangers. They won’t want to share a car with strangers any more than they currently want to share a train or a bus with strangers.

      1. I imagine that a company operating driverless taxis will offer two levels of service. A cheaper service where the car will pick up other passengers going in the same direction as you and a private service where you pay extra to have the car to yourself. There will probably be different levels of comfort too ranging from a car with basic seating to one with larger leather seats better entertainment equipment, miini-bar? etc.

        1. Pretty much like airport shuttles vs taxis do now then, a slightly longer trip shared with others via various destinations vs a direct more expensive taxi.

  3. I fail to see how these will be the utopia the dreamers promise us in articles like that vox piece. They may well drop the price of a taxi type service and mean more people forgo owning their own car. But how will a slight drop in following distances dramatically solve congestion? If it encourages people out of busses and trains, and with all the extra traffic as the vehicles drive back to make a second trip in, seems to me traffic will get worse!

  4. The two really interesting shifts that these technologies are likely to cause are interrelated; this is a world where all motorised journeys are experienced as a passenger, whatever the vehicle, and the end of the need to own any vehicle, well anything bigger than a bike, or for anything other than as a hobby enjoyed on private courses [i predict a huge boom in private racing, tinged with nostalgia; old Alfas, Porshces, etc; driving will become hipster]. So for movement on roads [when not walking or cycling] we will be neither the driver nor the owner of any powered vehicle. A great deal changes in this world.

    Anyone who reaches for the lame and meaningless ‘we love our cars’ slogan to justify the continuation of autodependant policy will find no ally in this future. The private is being taken out of the private vehicle; we will use cars, or car-like bots, just not own them, they will be experienced in a very similar way to public transport, and will fit very well with good quality public transport, growing its utility and appeal, especially over longer distances, with the botcars providing the last mile/first mile.

    The car and tech companies are doing something very dangerous to their businesses here; they have set out on a course that will break the powerful business model. Humans have a new love, the digital device; and s/he’s infecting the old partner. Cities will continue to de-car; we will be less emotional about bot-cars.

    This is the end of the affair.

    1. You raise a very good point here. There is a good chance of driverless cars working with and helping to make existing public transport more efficient. Imagine we have hundreds of driverless cars all on the same road heading to the same destination. Now 200 cars lined nose to tail with there likely to still be some separation between them will take up a lot of space. We could make the system more efficient if we joined all of these cars together. With them joined together we wouldn’t need each one to have it own engine, taking out this huge redundancy will save huge amounts of space and weight. This will create space for more people. We could create a single driver-less car that can carry hundreds of people. If it had its own road or track to run on we wouldn’t need to worry about congestion at all. With all of this efficiency we could even afford to hire a driver and thus implement this straight away and not have to worry about resolving the issues surrounding a driverless vehicle.
      In other words while driverless cars may make using a ‘car’ for transport more efficient it will probable still be a lot less efficient than existing mass transit technologies.

  5. I agree that the ethical issues will be significant. I would assume that some changes to criminal / civil liability law would be needed to accommodate driverless cars – otherwise what’s to prevent lawsuits from deaths / injuries arising as a result of the cars’ programming?

    I would also assume that the cars would _have_ to be programmed to deliberately put their user at risk of harm in certain situations. For example, what if the car had a choice between running down three children in a crosswalk or crashing into a telephone pole? I could see that being an issue for some consumers.

    1. Yeah at this stage I expect more people would like to be killed by a family member than some programming. But that issue; how murderous human driving is, is likely to ultimately prove decisive here.

      And remember we do kill each other at an alarming rate on the roads: 300 per annum in NZ 33,000 in the US!

          1. Reduce the default speed limit in urban areas, build more cyclelanes and better transit to get people out of cars, focus on safety projects not mega motorways, increase penalties for errant drivers. Lots that he can do.

            Reduce speed limits, lower alcohol limits (working says our local bar tender), physical separation of vulnerable road users, traffic calming entering residential areas, more wire median barriers.
            Take the government’s response to the recommendations of the cycle safety report- basically anything that would require a law change (1.5m passing distance, under-run protection on trucks)- they’re not interested.
            Mr Bridges can’t save 900 lives in three years, but he could save 300 or 400 – he chooses not to.

          3. Reminds me of when I was in Penrose a while ago. I was waiting at a traffic light in the left turn lane, when traffic going straight got green light, while turning traffic had red left / right arrows. The drivers in front of me just ignored the red arrow. I waited until I had green. The drivers behind me got very upset at me for that.

            Outside Auckland is where it gets really bonkers. Drivers sticking to my bumber because I don’t want to drive faster than 110kph. Drivers overtaking in slip lanes as soon as you slow down below 40kph.

            If the average voter doesn’t care if that number is 300 or 10,000, then the average politician is not going to try to reduce that number.

          4. Well there is one way that the government can ‘drive’ that number down and that’s shift the aggressive investment in driving inducing motorways in cities to an aggressive investment in the alternative modes. That will have a real effect on the numbers exposed to this lethal activity. Transit and cycling rich cities kill proportionately fewer of their citizens as they move around [unless of course you then allow everyone to have guns- but that’s another story].

    2. I’m not sure it’s fundamentally that different to the existing situation. Vehicle designer’s already make decisions which trade off the safety of one future user with another, eg. some designers will prioritise reversing cameras and visibility over providing more internal airbags, some brands are investing in active pedestrian identification while others aren’t…

      Programming decisions are probably a bit more cut and dried than these, but are similar at their core.

    3. “Choose Your Own Ethics” setting for the car’s collision avoidance software.

      Range from

      1) Complete Self-Preservation

      10) Complete Self-Sacrifice

  6. Rapidly emerging technology means that the future of transport is unlikely to be based on the historical assumptions we’ve used in transport planning! There’s a forum being held next week (22 October) in Auckland to discuss this idea. Everyone who is interested is welcome to come along. We’re having speakers from Uber, Chariot and the MoT talk as well as Steve Hewett who has just been to the ITS World Summit. I’ll post the invite on Twitter – you’re welcome to come and take part, and spread the details around.

  7. One thing a lot of people overlook is that they assume all autonomous vehicles will look like current cars and carry people. Imagine instead that some will be small vehicles that just do deliveries. They might be the size of a wheely bin (think Wall-e) and only go at 5-10km/h . Not a perfect fit for sharing the roads with cars but I don’t think anybody is thinking how they might share the footpaths with pedistrians.

    Apologies if I’ve linked to this before

  8. It’s paradoxical. I don’t know NZ’s total, but Australia lost 500 soldiers in the Vietnam War, and was forced to withdraw (some call it defeat, it certainly wasn’t victory). Yet lose 1000 people to driving deaths, that’s just life. If it was a war, we’d be losing that one more than Vietnam.

    I’ll be interested if the driverless cars achieve the nirvana of no deaths.

  9. The issues raised all seem very minor. We already hand over all our data freely to social media. We are the product that Google sells to advertisers. Privacy issues have long been settled with most people oblivious to how much data they handing over.

    I think AVs will have a significant impact on PT. Some opponents seem to miss the idea of a network of AVs. You can’t look at one individual using one AV. It is about everyone using a lot of them and the network effect and the radical change to how people live their lives. The competitive advantage comes from the network and the data collected.

    Few people use taxi’s instead of PT because of cost. More people are using taxi’s because of Uber. With AVs you will a huge drop in operating costs. For one, AVs will be a direct competitor to PT because of the price drop. An AV would beat the cost of a bus with a driver. You may end up where people will not take PT because PT costs too much for a crap service.

    3 Flatmates at the same uni could take the same AV and split the cost of one trip. It could be like 1 Netflix subscription but several people can use it. Maybe not at the same time unless going to the same place. The impact to PT and the automotive sector will be huge. I see many car companies slowly moving to automated transport services as opposed to just selling cars. I think AV’s will disrupt PT, but the need for mass PT will always be there and some balance will be reached.

    I think ethics aren’t an obstacle, at least not in NZ with ACC. The vast majority of accidents are caused by human error, failing to follow rules, speeding, drinking, texting etc. All caused by human drivers. I would choose an AV over a human driver any day. AV’s can react far quicker than any human driver can react, greatly reducing chances of accidents ever occurring in the first place. I would expect that AVs would not be budget models but models with a lot of safety features built into them. The chances of an AV having to choose in an unavoidable accident is extremely low. So low that it’s not worth worrying about as a major problem. In those freak occurrences, AV vs ped/cyclist, the car would avoid the most vulnerable user because the guy in the car has a greater chance of surviving crashing into a pedestrian. AV vs truck, then get the hell out of the way, but the AV would probably have detected and reacted early anyway. Even just braking quicker than any human can could mean the difference between life/death. Plus in these occurrences, the AV will have plenty of sensor data to argue over who is at fault. Overall the safety benefits far out weigh any minor legal matters on ethics.

    1. “or one, AVs will be a direct competitor to PT because of the price drop. An AV would beat the cost of a bus with a driver. You may end up where people will not take PT because PT costs too much for a crap service.”

      I think you are quite wrong there, because you are assuming buses stay the same.

      An AV certainly won’t beat the cost of an AV bus with no driver. PT will likewise get much cheaper and correspondingly have better service levels with the driverless “revolution”.

      Oh and it is quite clear that the task of a driverless bus/tram/rail thing on a fixed route with fixed stops is far easier to manage than a car type vehicle has to be programmed to do anything anywhere, effectively. You will see driverless trams and buses well before you see driverless cars, driverless PT will happen faster, sooner and easier than driverless private vehicles, and will be even more efficient.

      As for AVs reacting faster than humans, that may be the case. But I’m not sure if they can identify problems and make decisions quicker than humans, which is far more important than simple reaction time. That is one thing that people are very good at doing, thinking and understanding novel situations on the fly. Computers don’t really have cognition, they can’t think in the real sense of the word, only react as instructed.

  10. I’m really looking forward to these things. As a pedestrian I’ll never have to look again before crossing the road – they will stop. As a cyclist I’ll never get doored again and can run every red light I want. I can continue to drive my 20yr old Toyota like a brainless loon as they will all get out of my way – bring it on!!!
    Like all technology transitions the problem is not before or after, it’s the period of transition. Think of when the first in your group got a smartphone and started sending round photos that were gibberish to everyone stil on a feature phone. That was a quick catch-up. With the average car age in NZ of 11 + yrs and average ownership probably half that long the transition will be a long painful one.

    1. You think that, but what makes you certain they will stop?

      Not that long ago pedestrians and cyclists had full priority on the roads, and motorcars had to be preceeded by a man on foot with a whistle and a flag. We changed the laws and the morals to basically allow drivers to kill any pedestrians and cyclists in their way and it would be their fault for being in the way in the first place.

      What is to say we don’t dramatically change or morals and laws again?

  11. The US is looking to changes in 2020 and 2040.
    I wonder if we will be working like this at those dates.
    If present trends continue then I see an ever increasing % of the work force being unemployed or on the equivalent of zero hour contracts.
    The whole work life situation seems to be in for a very big change not just the driveing/commuter transport situation,

  12. I cant wait. Removing all them urbanian noobs from the country roads should improve my driving enjoyment even more.

    It’s a win/win.

  13. Ethics isn’t really an issue with self-driving cars, at least not yet. The reality is much simpler – think about what you were taught to do if there was an animal in the way. If something is in the way, brake. The number of cases where swerving is the best option is tiny, and puts your car and other road users at risk. The same applies to robotic cars. If something is identified as being in the path of the car, it should simply brake to avoid it. The choice of whether to hit fewer people or older people isn’t really a decision it needs to make. Just stop as fast as possible.

    One of the main areas of research in robotics is perception: seeing things around the robot. Modern techniques in perception are actually really good at detecting things in laser scans and images. Vision isn’t quite as reliable as laser as you don’t touch the world, but it’s very, very close. This is actually my area of work – I’m a research engineer working on autonomous vehicles.

    As a result of this perception the primary benefit to moving to robotic cars is safety. With 360 degree sensing they are much, much safer than human drivers. This won’t reduce the number of fatalities to zero unfortunately – it’s pretty much an inevitability that a self-driving car will kill a person eventually. It’s likely to not be the car’s fault, as these systems will be robust by the time they are deployed. The legal framework for managing this needs to be put in place. Conveniently, the cars will have near-perfect footage of the accident…

    The comments about congestion are correct. If people continue using autonomous vehicles as they do currently, there won’t be a huge change in congestion. I would expect maybe a slight improvement due to better merging and speed control, but this will be relatively minor.

    The biggest improvement in congestion will be changing social acceptance of sharing a car. If you don’t need to own and maintain a car, rather using an Uber-like app to get a ride anywhere at any time, it will be much easier to convince people to carpool and ride share.

    I also see these vehicles being hugely important in a public transport network. With a system of local shuttles you can ferry people to and from higher speed/capacity rail and bus lines. The flexibility this offers has the potential to make public transport as desirable as private transport. Similarly this could be effectively used to fill holes in the public transport network, and improve accessibility for people with reduced mobility (elderly, etc). Anecdotally, there are parts of London (which has one of the best transport networks in the world) which are a pain to get to due to where the buses, tube, and rail goes. Having a flexible option to fill this gap will make a huge impact on all the world’s cities.

    1. Thanks for your insight Jeff. Because AVs will make everyone passengers, they will work seamlessly with other forms of Transit. And we will still need the spatial efficiency of high quality Transit in cities.

  14. Just as long as the geeks working on them don’t get bored as start redesigning them so only geeks can work them. You only have to look at the computer industry to see that happening. Microsoft comes out with a system that, while not to everyone’s cup of tea, most people learn to master it. Then that is turned upside down and a system such as Windows 10 comes out that leaves everyone scratching their heads and throwing their computers at the wall, and in a year or so’s time, support for the older systems that everyone has mastered will be dropped.

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