Finally a minister who gets that driverless cars and not trains is our future

Simon Bridges appears to get it.

That our future lies in enabling technologies not restrictive technologies.

Trains are constrained by tracks and are not at all versatile, whereas driverless vehicles are enabling in many, many ways.

The prospect of cars travelling New Zealand highways with no one behind the wheel is moving closer says new Transport Minister Simon Bridges. Officials are reviewing legislation allowing for the testing of umanned autonomous vehicles on public roads.

Mr Bridges has pledged to work with environmental interests while also pursuing the Government’s road building programme.

Mr Bridges said he was committed to “a balanced approach” and ongoing investment roads were important even from a green perspective, “over time as we move to electric vehicles and autonomous vehicles”.

Mr Bridges said the Government was not doing a great deal to accommodate autonomous vehicle technology, “but I don’t think there’s any doubt that if you look at what’s going on internationally, maybe not in the next couple of years, but over time we will see driverless vehicles and that will have implications, like for example less congestion because vehicles can travel closer together”.

Around town I’d love a driverless car. It would free up so much dead time as to be worth the extra costs of purchasing such a vehicle.

The prospects for driverless cars on New Zealand’s roads was discussed in the Ministry of Transport’s recently published the Intelligent Transport Systems Technology Action Plan. The document discusses how information technology could improve New Zealand’s transport sector and what the Government can do to promote that.

The plan suggests New Zealand could be promoted “internationally as a test-bed for new technologies”.

It notes it is “currently legal in New Zealand for testing of driverless vehicles to take place on public roads, provided the vehicle meets relevant standards and a competent person is in the vehicle who can take control if required”.

That type of testing posed no specific legal issues, “and could potentially commence immediately”.

“Nevertheless, there will be benefits in reviewing and clarifying the regulations around the testing of such vehicles where no drivers are present.”

A Ministry of Transport spokeswoman said the ministry had been in discussions with several foreign companies about potential autonomous vehicle trials.

Fantastic. Let’s get it happening and start encouraging the development of infrastructure to support driverless vehicles.

In Australia they have had driverless trucks for years.

Forget about self-driving Google cars. There are automated giant trucks driving around the outback of Western Australia, perhaps the exact aesthetic and ideological opposite of the small Toyota Prius used by Google in test drives.

Mining company Rio Tinto uses huge self-automated trucks on mines in the Pilbara region of Western Australia that are programmed to drive themselves and navigate mine roads and intersections using sensors, GPS, and radar guidance systems. The trucks self-drive but are overseen by a controller in Perth, 1800 kilometres away.

“The biggest machine we have is equivalent to 107 737 jets by weight,” said John McGagh, Rio Tinto’s head of innovation. “They are very well instrumented and complex machines.”

To get an idea of scale, the majority of the 900 trucks (known as an Autonomous Haulage System) used on the Pilbara sites are the equivalent of six fully loaded 737s. Built in the US by Komatsu, the trucks navigate routes and conditions using 200 sensors, including 32 on the engine, and utilise Cisco networking technology.

“If you are around as long as Rio Tinto has been, then you have to figure out what is coming down the track,” McGagh said at the Cisco-sponsored Internet of Things World Forum in Chicago last week. “Wars, recessions and changes in technology.”

Since Rio Tinto’s truck trials began in 2008, the driverless vehicles have clocked up more than 1 million kilometres in distance and carried more than 100 million tonnes of material.

“It has broken traditional mining methods,” he said.

Time to ditch the ideas of the train-spotters.


– NZ Herald, Fairfax