man in driverless car

Driverless cars in Australia

Information verified correct on December 4th, 2016

What you need to know about self-driving cars.

For a long time everyone thought that flying cars were the next big step in automotive technology. After wising up and realising that the world needs new technology to make driving easier and safer, driverless vehicles entered the conversation.

Road accidents claim millions of lives every year and cause tens of millions of severe injuries, with human error being responsible for about 90% of these accidents. At the moment, driverless cars are the most realistic way of solving this problem.

Development is well underway, and many of biggest names in the car and tech worlds are competing for and collaborating on self-driving cars. In just a few short years driverless cars have gone from being a futuristic dream to an inevitable, and in some ways problematic, reality.

How do self-driving cars work?

A fully driverless car has to obey road rules, respond quickly to unexpected situations and drive safely in all circumstances. In other words, it has to be better than the average human driver.

This level of accuracy is achieved with built-in systems that constantly analyse the car’s surroundings and automatically take the right action. The exact technologies used in self-driving cars vary between manufacturers, and are often closely guarded secrets, but generally all self-driving cars have three key parts:

  • GPS

google self-driving car

Experimental Google cars wear their LADAR system like a hat. By Steve Jurvetson [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Today’s technology already has this pretty well covered, but there’s still room for improvement. The main reason all driverless cars need GPS is so that you can tell them where you want to go and they can take you there. The technology itself isn’t all that different to what’s on your phone, but having it built into the car makes it a lot more efficient.

  • GPS is extremely accurate and can help driverless cars stay between the lines and on the correct side of the road.
  • Driverless cars have to be able to decide between multiple options and choose the best route. Having up-to-date GPS information makes this possible.
  • Detection technology

In order to “see” where it’s going and “be aware” of hazards, self-driving cars need sophisticated detection technology. To date, most driverless cars have used a combination of LADAR (lasers used to measure distance), radar and cameras to see obstacles like guardrails, other vehicles, buildings and pedestrians, important indicators like lane dividers and road markers and even to read street signs.

  • LADAR, sometimes known as light radar or laser scanning, involves sending invisible lasers out into the surrounding area and looking at how the light bounces off the objects it meets to determine how far away they are and what kind of objects they are. In self-driving cars this is done continuously in all directions to create a realtime map of the vehicle’s surroundings.
  • LADAR needs more work before it’s good enough for fully self-driving cars. It still has a hard time in wet weather and snow as these affect how light is reflected and can also cover up road markings and street signs.
  • Radar is used to detect vehicles at a distance, even in poor visibility where LADAR may fail. Newer vehicles with adaptive cruise control typically use radar to detect cars in front of them and to automatically adjust their speed.

The first ever self-driving car fatality was caused by a LADAR error in a Tesla Model S, when a car on autopilot drove right into a truck that pulled out in front of it. This happened because it was a white truck and an overcast day. The LADAR misidentified the off-white truck as part of the grey sky, so the car didn’t hit the brakes.

  • Onboard computers

Tesla Model S 2013

Road-ready cars such as the Tesla Model S hide their LADAR system in the bumpers and the car body. By Niels de Wit from Lunteren, The Netherlands [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Cars have had onboard computers and electronic networks for decades now. However, driverless cars usually need multiple highly advanced computers and a much more comprehensive electronic network. This is because it has to analyze a huge amount of information on the fly, such as the current rotation speed and traction of each wheel, LADAR and GPS information, engine heat, the constantly updating location of surrounding vehicles and much more. At the same time, it will be feeding this information through algorithms to determine whether any actions are required, whether surrounding vehicles are likely to change lanes or slow down and anything else.

  • Computers can do things with cars that humans simply can’t. Anti-lock braking systems (ABS) for example, are able to pump the brakes much faster than a person could, while traction and stability control is able to take over individual wheels and control them independently of each other.
  • Driverless cars are able to identify a situation, assess it and take action in just a fraction of a second.
  • LADAR, camera, radar, GPS information and everything else is being constantly assessed by the onboard computer. For every moment it’s on the road, a driverless car is always asking itself what the situation is and whether it should be taking any action.

Are driverless cars safe?

Several companies, including Google, are programming their cars to not take any action, such as changing lanes, accelerating or braking, unless there is a 0% chance of it resulting in an accident. Theoretically, this ensures perfect safety as long as all the sensors and electronics work as intended, and as long as nearby human drivers don’t do anything unpredictable. However, it’s important to keep in mind that this technology is new and the kinks are still being ironed out. There have been accidents involving driverless cars, including one fatality, but many of these have come down to driver error.

What are the advantages of driverless car technology?

  • Safety

The biggest and most obvious advantage of self-driving cars is safety. Autonomous vehicles outperform human drivers across the board. They have:

  • Faster reaction times. A human driver will usually be the slowest part of a car. Driverless vehicles can identify hazards and take action before a person even sees it.
  • Smarter decisions. In an emergency situation you don’t have enough time to think things through. Driverless cars, however, do have enough time to analyse a situation and decide what the best move is.
  • Better drivers. Machines don’t get fatigued, distracted or drunk, which cuts out three big risk factors right away. They obey the speed limits, follow road rules and pay attention to warning signs, and it’s safe to assume they have no interest in road rage, tailgating or drag racing. Some people are simply bad drivers, but computers are consistently good.
  • Efficiency

Another clear advantage is efficiency.By itself, an individual driverless car can be more efficient in almost every way, but having the roads full of autonomous vehicles would change everything:

  • Individually, a self-driving car can average better fuel efficiency thanks to being able to maintain more consistent speeds and brake and accelerate in an optimal way.
  • Driverless cars are more predictable, keep consistent speeds and can drive much closer to each other than people can, letting them reduce congestion.
  • Autonomous cars can safely travel at much higher speeds than people can.
  • A driverless car network would allow for optimisation of traffic flow. For example, a highway lane for driverless cars only might look like an unbroken chain of vehicles, all driving at exactly 150km/h with only centimeters between each one.

April 2016 saw a successful test of self-driving truck platoons. Six convoys of self-driving trucks left factories all around Europe and drove themselves to Holland. Each convoy consisted of two or three vehicles, all connected by wireless devices, and one lead truck that determined the route and speed of all vehicles in the convoy.

This test successfully demonstrated that driverless vehicles can adjust to different road rules when crossing national borders and that there are benefits to be had from networking multiple driverless vehicles together. It also showed real efficiency gains. The trucks didn’t need to stop for food or rest, maintained consistent speeds across enormous distances and were able to improve energy efficiency by slipstreaming (following another vehicle closely).

  • More freedom for disabled people

When cars first hit the market all those years ago, they promised a new type of freedom. Unfortunately this didn’t really help anyone who was blind or otherwise disabled and unable to drive. Driverless cars bring a whole new promise of freedom, which is more important than it might seem.

  • Elderly drivers are enormously overrepresented in car crash statistics, largely because reflexes simply get slower with age. They’re also more likely to be in a position where they have no choice but to drive, even if it’s unsafe. As the elderly population grows, this will become an increasingly serious issue. Self-driving car technology is both an effective and realistic solution to this problem.
  • Being able to live independently is important when adapting to disability, but sometimes being physically unable to drive is an insurmountable obstacle. Driverless technology means a lot of people will suddenly be able to support themselves where they previously couldn’t, alleviating the pressure on their support networks.
Did you know?

Tesla drivers had safely used the self-driving autopilot feature for a combined 160 million kilometers before it resulted in a fatal accident. By contrast, human-driven cars tend to have a fatal accident every 96 million kilometers.

What are the disadvantages of driverless cars?

Like most revolutionary technology, driverless vehicles will have a big economic impact that we’re largely unprepared for. One of the best ways to get an idea of what to expect is by looking at certain critical industries. Consider trucking, for example.

Trucking will switch to driverless vehicles as soon as possible. This is because driverless trucks will earn much more and cost less. Driverless trucks don’t need to take breaks, can travel a lot faster, use less fuel and are much safer. Any trucking company that doesn’t switch to driverless vehicles will be at a huge disadvantage next to its competitors, so most companies will be keen early adopters.

  • There are about 173,000 truck drivers in Australia. Almost all of them could be in danger of losing their jobs depending on how quickly it’s taken up in Australia.
  • Filling stations, roadhouses and many other businesses depend on truckers for a regular flow of customers. Many of these will also go out of business.
  • Trucking is, by a large margin, one of the most dangerous jobs in Australia. A driverless fleet means trucking companies can save a huge amount on workers compensation and employer’s insurance.
  • Trucks are a crucial part of Australia’s business infrastructure and efficiency gains here will benefit most other industries. Despite the downsides, and the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs, the cost of not switching to driverless trucks could be even higher.

This type of pattern will be seen across many areas. Driverless cars promise much more efficiency and cost-effectiveness than human drivers and any business that doesn’t make the switch will find itself at a competitive disadvantage. This means that the mass uptake of driverless vehicles for business purposes could sweep across the world before they ever become similarly popular for personal use.

The downsides will most likely be severe and largely unavoidable, particularly if you work in an affected industry.

Five driverless car problems that still need fixing

There are still a few problems that need to be overcome before driverless cars are ready to replace human drivers.

  • The cost. All the technology that’s packed into driverless vehicles doesn’t come cheap and will bump up the price of a car considerably, particularly while the technology is still relatively new. Manufacturers want a self-driving car that they can sell to a mass market audience, and that means finding a way to lower the cost. This will happen naturally as the technology gets more affordable, but the cost is still high at the moment.
  • Legal issues. If two self-driving cars crash into each other, who’s fault is it? Is the occupant of a self-driving car a driver or a passenger? Are you legally required to keep your eyes on the road while riding in a driverless car? Do driverless cars really need a steering wheel? There are a lot of legal questions around driverless cars and most of them have no clear answers. A lot of legal and legislative work still needs to be done in almost every state and country before driverless cars are able to hit the roads en masse.
  • The roads. The cars themselves are only part of the picture. One of the burning questions in the industry is whether driverless cars should be designed for existing roads, or whether roads should be redesigned for driverless cars, such as by placing sensors on lane dividers or creating special driverless car lanes. With today’s technology we could already have fully functional, fully self-driving cars out in public, but only on specially designed roadways. Whether these infrastructure adjustments will ever happen determines what the future of driverless cars looks like.
  • Ethical problems. Driverless cars need to be programmed to make life or death decisions without human intervention. What if your car has no choice but to decide between killing you or a pedestrian? These kinds of situations will be rare, but given the sheer number of cars around the world they will happen and they need to have programmed responses ready for such situations. Surveys around these questions have shown that people recognise sacrificing oneself as the nobler option and approve of cars that make decisions this way, but this may because they have no intention of buying one of these cars themselves.
  • Human error. Somewhat ironically, some of the hardest driverless car problems to solve lie in the inseparable human aspect. A major one is that a lot of people simply enjoy driving or otherwise don’t want to give up control to a machine. Having even one human driver among robots will make everything much less efficient and much more dangerous, but people will do it anyway. Another human problem is the simple errors they may make, such as jerking the steering wheel while sneezing or accidentally pressing buttons. As long as people still have some measure of control over the car, these factors will continue to cause accidents and deaths.

What self-driving car technology can you get in Australia?

Fully autonomous vehicles aren’t on the roads yet, except for testing purposes, but there are many assisted driving technologies already out there. These systems are the stepping stones to driverless tech, and are quite widely available in Australia.

The good news is that you can get these features without breaking the bank, and some might even save you money in the long run by preventing accidents and lowering your insurance costs. You might want to consider getting a car with these features if:

  • You’re a fairly inattentive driver who gets ticketed a lot. These systems can keep you driving safely and legally even if your attention wanders a bit.
  • You are in the market for a brand new car. It might be easier to find a car with these features than without them.
  • You aren’t confident in your ability to parallel park, you often need to park in tight spots or you just want to make things easier for yourself.

If you’re buying a car with financing, then these are still worth considering, not only as valuable features for your car, but also for how they might help your insurance costs.

  • Some car loans might require you to take out a comprehensive car insurance policy. Because these cost more, discounts can help you save. Driver assist technologies that  demonstrably lead to safer driving, such as adaptive cruise control, are recognised by some insurers who may reduce your premiums if you buy them.
  • Newer model vehicles are often cheaper to insure than older ones. This is because spare parts are a lot easier to get and more widely available. Paying more for a newer vehicle with driver assist technology might save you money in the long run.
The technologyWhat does it do?Which cars have it?How advanced is it?How much does it cost?
Adaptive cruise controlCruise control that also adjusts your speed to match the car in frontHigh-end cars from most major manufacturers within the last two yearsEarlier versions require a lot of human input, but recent models can take over for extended periods of timeAbout $2,000 extra, depending on the system
Automatic parkingTakes over entirely and parks the car for youRecent models of the Ford Focus, Audi A6, Jeep Cherokee, all new sixth generation BMW 3 Series, most new Mercedes-Benz models and many moreWithin the last two years cars have become able to safely park themselves in most situationsAbout $1,000 extra
Hands-off steeringMakes the car steer itself; the closest thing to a fully driverless carSpecific models of newer, higher-end carsCars are generally able to drive themselves in good, clear conditions, but have difficulties in more complex situations$3,000 to $6,000 extra, depending mostly on which other features it comes bundled with
Automatic lane-keepingWarns you if you drift over lanes, can automatically steer you backMany different models and manufacturers have varying forms of thisIt generally depends on having clearly visible lane markers, but newer versions have more control than older onesStarts from about $1,500 extra, depending on whether it’s a warning system only or if it also has automatic steering

What will driverless car insurance look like?

No one is entirely sure what will happen to car insurance when fully autonomous cars hit the roads in large numbers, but it’s clear that it will need a lot of adjustments.

  • Ordinarily, car insurance companies will pay out if their customer is at fault, or will claim expenses from the other party’s insurance if their customer wasn’t at fault. This blame game is much harder with self-driving cars because the manufacturer might be more at fault than any of the vehicle occupants.
  • Self-driving cars will be safer than manned vehicles, which could lower insurance premiums considerably. However, this will only happen when it has been proven beyond doubt that all driverless cars are generally safer. Difficulties in gathering good data and differences in the quality of driverless systems might delay this. Don’t expect reduced premiums for driverless vehicles until they’re relatively common and well established.
  • There’s a good chance that car manufacturers will become much more closely involved with car insurance. In the transition period when fully driverless cars start flooding the market (it’s thought that this will happen between about 2021 and 2030), manufacturers might start offering their own car insurance policies for specific vehicles to make up for the lack of good options elsewhere.
  • Black box car insurance will become more standard. Black box car insurance measures a driver’s safety with a black box device in the car, which is then used to determine their premiums. Although common elsewhere, this type of insurance is still a rarity in Australia. However, with driverless cars, these devices could become invaluable for insurers who need to determine the quality of self-driving systems and find out who was responsible for an accident.
  • Insurers often cover themselves with the general requirements that you must pay attention while driving and obey all road rules. This will need to be amended in the age of driverless vehicles. If not, the occupant of a driverless car might be automatically liable for any accident simply because their hands weren’t on the steering wheel at the time, even though they didn’t need to be.

Frequently asked questions

When will driverless cars be available?

They already are if you count assisted driving technology or look at certain industries. Proper, fully autonomous driverless vehicles will likely be ready for the public market by 2025. Some prominent figures, like Tesla’s Elon Musk, say it will be sooner than this.

How much will a driverless car cost?

When it first hits the market, expect to see driverless technology as an optional extra with new cars. The cost of it will depend on how recent the technology still is. Industry groups estimate that in the year 2025 a driverless system will add an extra $7,000-$10,000 to the sticker price of a vehicle, in 2030 it will cost an extra $5,000 or so and in 2035 the cost will drop to about $3,000.

Have there been any driverless car accidents?

There has been only one known fatality that has resulted from driverless or driver-assist technology, but there have been a lot of smaller incidents. These are almost always a case of driver error. Several Tesla drivers have had accidents while inadvisably testing the limits of their car’s self-driving system, while Google’s driverless cars have had well over a dozen minor accidents while being tested on public roads and every single one of them has been the fault of the other driver.

Which companies are making self-driving cars?

Most of the big names in the car industry and many technology companies are investing heavily in driverless car technology. These include BMW, Mercedes, Volkswagen, General Motors, Volvo, Ford, Audi, Honda, Nissan, Toyota and more. Others, such as Jaguar, have said that driverless technology goes against their ethos of driving for fun and that they have no intention of releasing driverless vehicles. In most cases, including Jaguar’s, companies have changed their minds in the face of research showing that most people want to own a driverless car someday.

Could driverless cars get hacked and taken over?

Theoretically, yes, but so can many of today’s cars, which are already connected through networks. The extra attention that will be spent on driverless system security in the coming years means that the technology will be safer than that of today’s vehicles.

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