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Look no hands: Autonomous vehicles

Look no hands: Autonomous vehicles Featured Image

What could new transport technologies mean for councils? The Ministry of Transport explains.

The government’s recently-released report Testing Autonomous Vehicles in New Zealand outlines our unique natural and legal environment to companies seeking to trial automation technology. The guidelines are a key resource in promoting New Zealand as a receptive test-bed for new technologies, particularly fully autonomous (driverless) vehicles – an action under the government’s ITS Technology Action Plan 2014–2018.

The guidelines were also produced because the Ministry of Transport and the NZTA were receiving enquiries from companies considering testing vehicles in New Zealand.

Our country has one particular advantage when it comes to autonomous vehicles. Our legislation does not explicitly require a driver to be present for a vehicle to be used on the road, which means so long as a vehicle meets relevant safety standards and the testing is carried out safely, a truly driverless vehicle may be tested today.

What next for councils?

Broadly speaking, developers are taking two approaches to automation. These have been summarised as ‘something everywhere’ and ‘everything somewhere’.

Something everywhere

Virtually all traditional car companies have said they will start on the path to automation by automating only some specific types of self-driving. To achieve this, vehicles are using a combination of cameras to detect lane markings, and radar to keep a constant following distance.

On some roads, the driver can sit back and not focus on the driving task. But for the time being they will need to take control in most environments. The technology cannot (yet) make navigation decisions, like turning at intersections.

This approach has been described as ‘something everywhere’, as vehicles will work everywhere, but only some features are automated, and these will only work some of the time.

Tesla recently enabled this type of self-driving technology, and several other high-end car manufacturers have said they will soon be offering similar options. Most car companies have said they will offer some form of self-driving technology by 2020. It is unlikely that councils or government will need to do anything specific to allow this type of autonomous vehicle to operate.

Everything somewhere

At the other end of the automation spectrum, Google and other less well-known companies are already testing vehicles with no steering wheels or other controls. These are fully autonomous, or self-driving. To operate they need a complex array of sensors, cameras and positioning systems, including highly detailed and accurate maps.

Because these vehicles automate all functions, but currently only work in very specific environments, this has been described as ‘everything somewhere’.

This kind of vehicle is still in the first phase of development, and will currently suit a restricted environment like a local community or university campus. Limiting the vehicles’ range while they are further developed also reduces the chances they will encounter a situation they cannot manage.

Why test in New Zealand?

These fast developing technologies have great potential to contribute towards a safer and more efficient transport system for New Zealand. While a lot of testing is occurring overseas and on test tracks, it is important trials also take place in ‘real world’ environments.

Testing vehicles in New Zealand will improve our understanding of how the technology responds to our environment, and allows our transport sector to gain skills in deploying and managing new technology.

Trials also enable different kinds of emerging and innovative technology to be socialised with the public. Trials will provide an opportunity to provide feedback about the acceptability of the technology.

In your area

What if a company wants to trial an autonomous vehicle in your area? In New Zealand, the NZTA oversees the relevant legislation around vehicles and their operation on 
New Zealand roads. It is encouraging anyone who wants to test a vehicle technology to make contact as early as possible. It will discuss whether the vehicle will require 
any exemptions from rules and help develop a safety management plan.

It has established a dedicated contact address 
(avtesting@nzta.govt.nz) to assist.

Any testing of autonomous vehicles is going to be about the ‘real world’, so no specific changes to roads or new technologies are likely to be required from councils at this time.

In the future, more advanced vehicles may require roadside digital transmissions to help their journey (often referred to as ‘connected-vehicle’ or V2I communications). It is too soon to know whether these transmitters will be needed, or what they are likely to cost.

A council may need to be involved if a tester wants access to public spaces, such as pedestrian malls, or if a dedicated route for a trial was being considered. We expect councils will be advised of any trials occurring in their area and the NZTA would welcome working with any councils that do want to be involved in trials.

What are fully-autonomous vehicles?

Look no hands: Autonomous vehicles Content Image
Look no hands: Autonomous vehicles Content Image

There is, as yet, no standard term to describe fully-autonomous vehicles. Different countries and different companies are using a range of terms to describe these new technologies, including ‘driverless’, ‘self driving’, ‘automated’ and ‘autonomous’ vehicles.

Because of the legal issues raised, it is necessary to be able to distinguish different levels of vehicle technology. In particular, we can distinguish systems by their degree of autonomy (ie, how much intervention is required by the human driver) and by the functions that are autonomous (eg, whether the vehicle is staying in a lane at a constant speed, or whether it can automatically brake to avoid obstacles). Distinctions along either dimension might be legally significant.

To provide some structure for policy discussions, the US National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has developed a five-level classification system. (Perhaps inevitably, other organisations have produced other classification systems.)

Although the NHTSA’s numbered levels suggest a progression of technology from partial to full vehicle autonomy, the market will almost certainly not develop in such a linear manner.

We can expect a mix of approaches from vehicle suppliers. 
For example, while traditional vehicle manufacturers are starting with the automation of specific functions (eg, adaptive cruise control and lane keeping technology) which would be level three 
in the diagram, or automation under specific circumstances 
(eg, highway driving), Google has attempted to automate all of 
the driving functions, which in this description is level four.

Councils: get stuck in

Local government could have a role operating autonomous vehicles. One of the current problems with autonomous vehicles is that they cannot operate everywhere, so public transport, with its clearly-defined routes, has been the subject of numerous recent developments in autonomous vehicle technology. Several companies are now selling fully autonomous prototype vehicles for use in public transport operations.

As an example, the French company Navya received considerable publicity at the 2015 Bordeaux ITS World Congress when it demonstrated a fully autonomous 15-seat driverless shuttle bus. The vehicle safely shuttled participants between several Congress venues on public roads.

In February 2016, the Western Australia Minister of Transport and the Royal Australian Automobile Club announced 
they would be purchasing and then trialling the Navya driverless shuttle in Perth 
during 2016.

This direct approach is an option that councils in New Zealand could consider 
if they wanted to run their own trial.

This article was first published in the June 2016 issue of NZ Local Government Magazine.

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