This is a guest post by Greater Auckland reader MrPlod

On Sunday, September 3, 1967, just 55 days after New Zealand converted to Decimal Currency, Sweden changed from driving on the left-hand side of the road to driving on the right hand side.

As you might imagine, this switch was anything but easy. The decision was not taken lightly and took many attempts to finally get approved. But they did it and now have some of the safest roads in the world.

Finally, everything was ready. At 4:50 a.m. on September 3, 1967, as crowds of people gathered to watch, all vehicles on the road were instructed to come to a halt. They were then directed to move carefully from the left side of the road to the right, and wait. At the stroke of 5:00, following a radio countdown, an announcement was made — “Sweden now has right-hand driving” — and traffic was allowed to resume. Time Magazine called the event “a brief but monumental traffic jam.”

In this post I will argue that NOW is the right time for New Zealand to be making the same change because for a nation that imports 100% of its road transport vehicles this will align us with the major vehicle producing nations of the future which are ALL right-hand drive (RHD).

For starters 80% of the world’s motor vehicles are manufactured today in right-hand drive nations. This has been the case since the mid 1990s.

The top ten RHD nations include all the leaders in volume production except Japan:

There are a number in here building other nations’ vehicles but importantly the top three EV building nations stand out above; China, Germany and the USA.

Then consider this table. The annual production of the top nine LHD nations.

Apart from Japan, none of these can be considered to be at the vanguard of automotive design and development. And NONE are at the vanguard of EV design & construction. The UK might be for high end and exotic cars, but the rest are mainly manufacturing narrow ranges of LHD versions of other nations’ vehicles. LHD can be summed up as Japan, Indonesia, and the British Empire.

On the basis of the above alone New Zealand would open itself up to a far greater range and variety of importable vehicles were we aligned to the RHD rather than the LHD nations.

Right-hand drive countries in red, left-hand drive in blue. Map from Wikipedia.

The LHD stand-out, Japan, is dragging its feet in transitioning to EVs. Sure the hybrid Prius was a huge advance when introduced in 1997 and Toyota has done well to hybridise most of its fleet but are resisting a full transition to EVs. Their huge investment in hydrogen is a side show. Ask any competent physicist or chemical engineer to walk you through the energy economics of hydrogen powered cars and it makes little sense. Trains and trucks might be a possibility, but cars aren’t. Elsewhere, the Japanese motor industry is doubling down on ICE engine efficiency and hybrids.

The Japanese Automobile Manufacturing Association (JAMA) will claim that Japan ranks number three in the world for Electrified Passenger Vehicle adoption (at 36% in 2020) behind Norway (83% and Iceland 58%). That is because they call HVs, PHeVs, EVs and FCVs as “electrified”. Only 0.38% were full electric vehicles.

So Japan’s automotive future is ICE, Hybrid & Hydrogen. Continuing to buy new and second hand Japanese vehicles will tie New Zealand into a terribly delayed transition to EVs.

A given reason for Japan driving on the left – they walk on the left to avoid sword fights. From quora.com

Now that you’ve considered the above and may be open to the idea of using a transition to RHD to accelerate the electrification of our fleet let’s also think about how such a change could achieve some of the objectives that are close to the hearts of the readers of this blog and why dear readers you should join me in campaigning for this fundamental change and everything that would follow. The change to RHD would accelerate all of the following;

  • Our vision zero journey
  • Road space reallocation
  • Increased investment in public transport
  • Accelerated uptake of new generation electric passenger vehicles and electric, hydrogen and gas turbine trucks
  • Transfer of road freight to rail and coast shipping
  • Investment in regional passenger rail
  • Bringing the climate change refuseniks along
  • A halt to the current road building mania.

This acceleration would happen because we would need to navigate through three phases of change;

  1. On H-Day (‘H’ in Sweden stood for Högertrafikomläggningen,or the Right-Hand Traffic Diversion) every road sign, every painted line, every piece of the roading infrastructure needs to be swapped around and in that swap around process that’s when we achieve road space reallocation, speed limit reduction, and hazard treatment. Also in the planning process we would draw on the experience of our current crop of roading engineers keeping them from planning yet another motorway.
  2. Immediately after H-Day roads will be inherently unsafe until all our brains have been re-wired to think “right-big, left-small” and many people will want to avoid driving. We can help get people out of their cars and reduce that risk by increasing investment in public transport, regional rail and rail freight ahead of H-day so there are fewer vehicles on the road.
  3. The H-Day transition will not be fully complete until all the LHD vehicles are off our roads. This change will commence once the H-Day date is set and continue for some years after. It will allow those who would otherwise resist buying an electric vehicle to get one because it’s RHD.
A scene from Stockholm on H-Day in Sweden, image from realscandinavia.com

The flood of the New Zealand roadscape with cheap second hand Japanese imports since the late 1980s has run its course. It has enabled us all to buy many more of a wider range of safer vehicles than if we had stuck with CKD assembly or ‘only new’ imports. BUT the Japanese manufacturers have locked themselves into an ICE, Hybrid and Hydrogen future which is not where New Zealand should go. We have oodles of cheap renewable electricity which makes EVs the perfect answer.

So, just as we gave up on the hoary old Morris 1100’s, Ford Escorts and Vauxhall Chevettes by cutting the British umbilical in the 1980s, it’s time to shift our source of supply again to look to the right-hand drive world.

Call this the Gretzky plan if you like.

Share this

85 comments

  1. But what about poor Samoa who changed the other way back in about 2009 so they could import cars from NZ, Aus and Japan. In the short term they may have a few million NZ sourced cars to access!!

  2. Also, we all know that EVs are not really the solution; they’re still cars. This would be a massive and somewhat expensive change (think motorway changes, onramp vs offramp lengths, traffic light positioning, lane markings…).

    The best environmental impact would be more e-bikes for transport, they are not LHD or RHD, they’re beautifully symmetrical. Switching to RHD wouldn’t help with this at all.

      1. Matra, McLaren, Glickenhaus, GMA, Light Car Company, BAC it’s a short list of expensive exotic vehicles.

  3. On Sakhalin Island in Russia they import a lot of right hand drive vehicles from Japan (30km away), but drive on the right. I found that when I was cycling there it was a lot safer. The drivers were on your side of the vehicle and gave you much more room when passing.
    Seeing our vehicle fleet will be around for some time, we could expect safer cycling for a decade or so.

    1. And this was a scene from San Francisco in 1906 when all Vehicles were Right Hand Drive but for some unknown reason they decide to drive on the left ;-

    2. It’s not just Sakhalin where you can find RHD vehicles, they are popular in all eastern Russian cities and even as far west as Astrakhan, there are also a lot of them in Kazakhstan which was a real surprise to me.

      1. With the fall of the Soviet Union the Russian fisherman that were working here were buying our old cars , loading them on their boats and taking them back to Russia at the end of the season .

  4. We could adopt an ambidextrous or ambisinister network.

    LHD & RHD vehicle drivers can freely negotiate with each other around a non-delineated roadway in whatever way they please.

    Centrelines and medians become a thing of the past as the instant wisdom of the market allocates the entire roadspace and routes traffic in a completely optimal manner.

  5. Japan dragging its feet on Ecars? Isn’t the Toyota leaf the primary “cheap” ecar? Oh well great news tho, ebikes don’t have this issue.

    I feel this completely misses the point (it also ignores that NZ would get slammed by American Utes/tanks), fewer cars is what is truly needed.

    1. Nissan Leaf, and yea, until the M3s hit scale it was our most popular import. So I’m really not getting where this ‘Japan used market bad’ thing is coming from. Toybaru are about to launch a Solterra/B4x4xcTcBX4TC (a little unsure of the name tbh) JEV model which will be hitting markets shortly, and I’m seeing more and more electric Lexii coming in.

      So I think the RHD import game has some legs left in it yet when it comes to Japan, and especially given that the Aussie market is far bigger and will drive regional demand for RHD cars in this part of the world (and hence triggering the need for supply down here) for a long time. Frankly I’m not sure what would actually accomplish? The Teslas and Minis would still come from China like the RHD ones do.

        1. I think you mean ebikes. Double the number of ebikes were imported in 2021 than the wires ecar fleet.

      1. Battery replacement tech will prolong the Nissan Leaf for some years to come, they are a great car and with little moving parts for EV’s they will run a lot longer than ICE conterparts.

        Interested to see what happens in the EV conversion space too, its quite hard to convert our fleet as anything post 1990 has onboard computers for braking etc which makes them harder to convert, but if that changes and becomes cheap it migth be better for the Government to eventually subsidise conversions of old cars, upcycling/recylcing rather than burning emissions making more cars than needed. Especially with all the tech that comes with new EVs these days. Some people just want a wind down window and a tape player!

        1. A lot of older cars are getting expensive to buy as they’re collectable now, and people buy them as investments rather than cars. So EV’ing a rx7 or skyline may be seen as a silly move re-sale wise.
          But a 1995 corolla or 323 would still be potentially affordable to EV

  6. When driving a RHD car in Europe for a few months I found the seating position didn’t allow me to see other road users at junctions.

  7. Is it April 1st ? Have I missed some six months of life, overnight? I could have sworn it was the middle of June. What a bizarre article – fun, but totally pointless. Sweden HAD to do this as it was part of Europe, and people drive into their country over their borders. No such restrictions here, ever, and therefore, no such need.

    Your throw-away line “The H-Day transition will not be fully complete until all the LHD vehicles are off our roads. This change will commence once the H-Day date is set and continue for some years after.” Seeing as we have the oldest fleet of cars in the universe outside of Africa, it would sow confusion into the already parlous state of our driving for at least the next 14 years. So: never going to happen.

  8. Making confused…

    Right LANE drive not right HAND drive!

    We are already right hand drive!!

    If charge the lane, first change our vehicles!!

  9. Curious that the article completely ignores the first mass-produced fully-electric car, the Nissan Leaf, which is Japanese.
    Also it would seem that the manufacturers of cars from countries that drive on the right have somehow managed to also produce right hand drive cars, like the most-sold EV, the Tesla Model 3.

    Somehow I can’t help but feel that this article is mainly just against Japanese cars.

    It states that after the switch the roads would unsafe, but that would cause people to be too afraid to drive making it more safe – which one is it?

  10. Maybe we could phase it in. Cars could swap on a Monday, vans could change on Tuesday, trucks Wednesday, buses on Thursday and ambulances, if there are any left, on Friday.

    1. +1.
      NZ probably needs at least 6 months of no private vehicles on roads to manage the infrastructure changeover. After which – what’s the point in letting them back on?

      1. True. 6 months of riots. Protests people waiting for a bus that never comes. A study found its safer to drive on the left due to how the brain is wired up. There is a video on this and Sweden.

    2. Or maybe an approach like WFH, so, traditional left-lane driving Tuesday to Thursday and the new normal right-lane traffic on Mondays and Fridays. Weekends, well, whatever I guess?

        1. When I was in India, my driver said “In some countries you drive on the right, in others you drive on the left. Here in India we drive on both!”

  11. This has to be satire. Has the author considered the cost of replacing every single traffic light, street sign, and road marking in New Zealand. Also, every freeway on-ramp would suddenly become and off-ramp, likely requiring a redesign. The time to do this was a decades ago, when New Zealand had hardly any cars. But that time has passed.

    1. But decades ago, we got all our cars from our colonial masters in the UK, who only made right hand drive cars. So that makes no sense either.

      Incidentally, I recall reading somewhere that Aotearoa has the widest range of cars in the world – we are apparently the only country that gets the full range of British, European, Japanese, Korean cars, with also the ability to import American cars. We also get Chinese cars now too. Probably the only range we are missing out on is the revived Russian Zil. All of this, of course, means that because we have such a great range, and such a small market, our cars are hideously expensive and keeping parts is even more so.

      By contrast, when I was in Egypt a while back, their car-sourcing system is far simpler. Roughly speaking, each town gets one dealer, who many has one model, and they are all one colour. So Aswan gets Peugot 504 in beige, Edfu gets Renault 19 in red, Luxor gets Citroen in cream etc. (And tourists get mainly Toyotas or Fiats in white, so everyone knows who the tourists are in town). And any time you damage a panel on your car (probably quite often, as the concept of driving on just one side of the road appears a little arbitrary) you just go to the dealer in your town, who will of course have a replacement panel in the colour your town supports. Makes driving a car in Egypt remarkably affordable compared to NZ.

      1. Not at all, decades ago we assembled most of our cars in NZ, we sourced them from all over the world, there were an awful lot of American cars in NZ, a lot of them came from Canada, we also had factories assembling German, Italian and French cars.

  12. Most enjoyable: it’s been a year or two since someone raised this one. It would mean that the extra “Keep left” signs you find around the Sth Island tourist roads would no longer be necessary. And of course you could stage the changeover- South Island first. The signs south of Picton could be good: we would need billboards something like the Barry Crump toyota ads – “We do things different down here Scottie.”
    The obvious people to interview in the lead-up would be the drivers of the twin-drive refuse trucks plus certain sorts of retired AA members who could tell you what it’s like driving on the Autobahn.

    1. Also – daylight saving! What a swizz that is! I have to get up an hour earlier to milk the cows, and the curtains fade faster too….

    2. “It would mean that the extra “Keep left” signs you find around the Sth Island tourist roads would no longer be necessary” – we would need plenty of “Keep right” signs for the Aussie, British and Japanese tourists though.

  13. China is now producing a multiude of LHD vehicles at cheaper prices than Japanese and European producers and will get cheaper still as battery tech progresses. BYD have setup a LHD priduction line as have Great Wall for their Ora brand, both coming to NZ but also serving places like India with over a billion people living there. Cars are just like anything else, a capitalist commodity driven market, as prices around the world drop LHD producers will have to adapt or die, which I imagine some of the big Japanese brands will as they look to be too late to pivot (Kodak moment).

    By the time decisions to try and move us to a RHD country would have been made and implemented, then our whole fleet changed over to RHD Ev’s, the planet will have either epxloded or we will we flying nuclear powered personal helicopters.

    As fun a discussion as its niether practical or changes the biggest elephant in the room in that we need to move away from car dependancy. If anything the lack of availability of cars will probably be a good thing.

  14. That’s a pretty radical idea but I can do better than that. Let’s make all roads one way then we would have a truly circular economy. Or lets just try to use public transport, cycle and walk more its simpler less stress and less taxing on the planet.

  15. RU crazy?
    Such a move would be at huge cost, force our existing huge old fleet onto the wrong side of the road all leading to an accident crisis.
    For what? We are still in love with the car and will certainly not upgrade to a modern fleet in a hurry.
    By all means we need to decrease our reliance on cars with better alternative options and congestion charging but the cost of your proposal would just get in the way

  16. Even if India were not a very high volume car producer now – and I do not for one minute believe India produced no cars in 2020 – I wouldn’t bet against it as a high volume producer in the future.

  17. Glad to see that I’m not the only one who thinks this whole post is satire and pointless. I also don’t really believe that Sweden has safer roads because of the switch.

    1. They may have safer roads because so many of their European visitors would have been used to driving on the other side. We don’t really have that as a lot of our visitors come from Australia and the UK.

    2. what MrPlod hasn’t pointed out is they drove on the right using LHD cars, when they converted to driving on the left they didn’t have to change vehicles.

  18. Clearly we should leave the cars to decide we which side of the road they want to be on. Hardly for us to define it so ridgidly.

  19. Hi everybody. Thanks for your thoughts and comments. It was great to read your responses and learn about places like Egypt and Shaklin Island. And practical suggestions like Miffy’s to change by day.
    I’m pleased most of you realise this is not a genuine suggestion.
    I wrote this as a jokular way of highlighting two important issues facing us.
    The first is that our motor vehicle supply chain travels on Japan’s coat tails and the Japanese automotive industry is stuck in the wrong mindset. To convert to an EV based transport infrastructure we MUST look past Japan to other countries.
    Joe your comment about BYD is right on.
    The second is the major challenges we face in rebuilding our transport network to meet the needs of ALL users rather than needs of those in ICE vehicles and that there is currently no unifying strategy for dealing with all of the priorities. I listed these changes in my bullet points above.
    Shortening travel times has been the unifying strategy (and measure) of the motorway age. It is easy to understand and for politicians to use We have yet to develop a simple all in one objective for the post motorway age consequently our efforts to move forward on many fronts is so easy for opponents to bog down and delay.
    So my one BIG idea to unify all the others was to make a fundamental change to the whole system and achieve the other changes on the way through.
    What do you think? Is there a better unifying idea?

    1. Last year Toyota announced its EV roadmap, which includes 30 models by 2030. Given the company’s long history of production efficiency and quality, I would not be surprised to see them completely eclipse the Teslas and Polestars of the world. Market cap is one thing, but Tesla in particular suffers from a relatively low output and high recall rate. They don’t have manufacturing maturity yet.

      Anyway, hopefully by 2030 we’ll have collectively woken up to the fact that planning our lives around personal car infrastructure sucks no matter what the powertrain.

      https://www.theverge.com/2021/12/14/22833997/toyota-ev-investment-lexus-concept-vehicles

      1. Tesla “recalls” do NOT involve taking the car back to a service department. For the vast majority of (well publicised by the anti-s) recalls, they involve an over the air update, which, once decided upon, means the whole world wide fleet is updated at once within hours. So not an issue.

      2. Sorry Beau
        Toyota has a roadmap, because it has no product.
        It rolled over on EV’s when it pulled the plug on the over-subscribed and impressive Rav4 EV 15? years ago.

        1. You can buy a Toyota bZ4X and a Lexus RZ both BEV’s, with fairly decent range.

  20. While I agree that a change to right hand drive is inevitable, the transition will require more than just a switching of the road signage. Parts of the roads themselves will require rebuilding. For example most of our rural highways have a “two-lane blacktop” format along much of their length with an additional 3rd lane where there are significant hills to form a passing lane to allow trucks and other slower traffic to be overtaken. As part o the change from LHD to RHD the road layout will need to be altered so that the extra lane serves the uphill traffic (it would not make sense for the downhill traffic to have two lanes while the uphill traffic only has one). In some cases the centre-line can simply be moved – but in many cases the road camber and central barriers will need to be rebuilt. Similarly, many motorway off ramps terminate in a multi-lane arrangement (at least 2 and up to 6 lanes)to allow “stacking” of vehicles waiting for a green light and to avoid a long queue extending back onto to the motorway itself. Meantime the onramp has only one lane (sometimes 2 but narrowing to a one-lane choke point). Simply swapping these lanes would be sub-optimal but it may take many months and possibly years to re-engineer them all. There are other issues of a similar nature – for example ensuring good sightlines for traffic approaching intersections or pedestrian crossings designed for a LHD environment but from the opposite direction. I say this not to argue against the change to RHD but to point out that the transition will have complexities and certainly not be all over on one day.

    1. Is it really inevitable? Like, there isn’t really a need to change, our closest partner drives on the left like NZ, and we have our infra all set up for left hand drive.

      Sure we could overcome all the difficulties, but is it worth it? Also I think most people if given an option would remain driving on the left.

  21. Under the “Burmese way to Socialism” era the Junta decided to switched from driving on the left (with steering wheel on the right) to driving on the right (with steering wheel on the right). So that means passengers get out into traffic. Insane.

    1. Yes, when I was there no one could explain WHY that had been done. Other than the bloody mindedness of the military. And they continue to import more RHD cars from Japan. Madness.

      1. I heard the reason was that the military Junta at the time was worried the country was going too left-wing so thought driving on the right would balance things up a little. True or not makes as much sense as any other reason.
        I noticed they had little mirrors for the rear passenger doors so one could see if traffic was coming before stepping out.

    2. Not true, Adrian. As most NZ cars, sadly, are carrying only the driver, they would be getting out on the safe side of the car, AWAY from the traffic. And in any car with only a single person in the rear, they can choose to get in and out on the safe side as per now. So the only person who has increased danger is the front seat non-driver. I’d suggest an overwhelming increase in safety.

      1. When I was in Burma the bus passengers got off in the middle of the road. For taxis (which is the majority of cars), the passenger does not sit behind the driver and, therefore, get in and out of the car in the middle of the road. And let’s not talk about over-taking – can get a bit scary when cars have to go over a lot to see if there is any on-coming traffic. Buses and trucks have a person sitting in the front passenger seat to say if it is safe or not.
        Not sure where you get this idea that it is safer there.

  22. I think the big unifying idea is the Emissions Reduction Plan’s requirement to reduce VKT.

    It’s simple and it smashes NZTA’s “predict and provide” justification for more roads. . And there’s no hiding behind deluded claims that new motorways will reduce congestion and therefore emissions.

  23. Aren’t we poised to enter the glorious era of self-driving cars? They need neither steering wheel nor driver so can be completely symmetrical and will drive on whichever side of the road they are programmed for. They should even be able to dynamically switch sides based on what is optimal for the moment. All lanes will temporarily become bi-di, as we transition to the self-flying cars of the future which need neither lanes, nor roads. All roads can then be converted to cycleways, and hey, we might as well just stick with riding on the left (ROTL).

  24. No point at all changing the side of the road we drive on, and the side of the “person in charge” position, given their imminent replacement with airborne personal pods.

    Mind you if these flying pods have fixed wings the control position should be on the left, but if they have rotary wings the control position should be on the right.

    1. Who says that LHD cars (noting the confusion in terms in this article) are all American? What about all the continental European cars – VWs, BMWs, Mercedes, Skodas etc – all with far larger LHD output than RHD output.

      1. John which vehicles produced in Europe today don’t we get? There might be a few minor models from the Italy and France which we don’t get, mainly because the British don’t buy them. Almost everything that’s sold in the EU is also sold in the UK and available for import to NZ, if the NZ distributors think they can sell it here they will. We are not missing out on anything that’s safer or better than what we get today.

        The long and the short of it is this article is full of some many holes and biased information that you could drive the harbour bridge through it.

        BTW the primary reason why the transition to EV’s will be long and slow in NZ is simple, we can’t afford them. NZ is not Norway, we don’t have Norwegian incomes but we have close to Norwegian level living expenses and more expensive housing.

  25. You’ve confused terms. LHD/RHD refers to the side of the car that the steering wheel is on. Left side / right side refers to the side of the road that the vehicle sticks to. RHD = Japan, Australia, NZ, GB. LHD = most other countries.

  26. Quintessential Green thinking. Do something irrelevant and extremely expensive with almost all of the benefits being ideological conformity to their world view.

  27. Writer is clueless.
    LHD/RHD refers to the position of the driver in hhe car, not the side of the road you drive on

  28. Something else useless for us all to talk about and spend billions of dollars on. I can think of better things to spend on health poverty etc
    education

  29. NZ cannot build ONE tram line for years, cannot build anything resembling what other countries call train/rail network, deliberates for years about one cycleway. You think this country can do such thing as changing the whole transport network to the other side (and vehicle fleet). Is this serious? Public consultations and business cases for that would take the governments at least a hundred years. I assume the author wanted to theorize about it as kind of science fiction. It will never happen. Maybe only in the event that the world stops producing cars for the left side.

  30. Mr Musk is working hard to remove steering wheel. NoHandDrive
    Mr Putin is working hard to remove Petrol and Diesel affordability
    Greta suggests our fun shouldn’t include jets, jetski’s or Rangers.

    I imported a Left hand Drive eBike by mistake, but it seems to go ok.

    1. You say that as a joke but I never realised the brake levers are on opposite sides of the bars for LHD and RHD bikes.

  31. Not sure about the oodles of cheap renewable electricity comment.
    We are already burning cheap Indonesian coal at Huntly to top up the network and the lack of supply is one of the reasons they are looking at closing the Aluminium smelter in Southland so that electricity can go back into the grid to keep it from maxing out too soon.

  32. OP, if you want your piece trying to masquerade as humour, you should try being funny. The errors aren’t event consistent.

    How did this even get published??

  33. No comment, except I like Toyota cars. I suspect they will turn more to full EV vehicles once the tech is hammered out a bit more. Hybrids have been an important stepping stone in emission reduction. Imagine all the Uber drivers not using these?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.