Tauranga commuters could be catching driverless shuttle buses within two years if a radical new vision for public transport gains traction with Bay of Plenty transport leaders.
The call to action has been made by Andrew von Dadelszen, one of five Tauranga representatives on the Bay of Plenty Regional Council.
His paper, presented to a recent transport workshop, urged council planners to fast-forward their thinking into 21st century solutions needed to cope with Tauranga's increasingly congested roads.
Mr von Dadelszen predicted that driverless technologies would change the dynamics of Tauranga's transportation system in just five years.
"It is vital the councils think about it now so that it does not come as a surprise," he told the Bay of Plenty Times.
It could see Tauranga become the first city in New Zealand to introduce the technology on to its streets. A battery-powered driverless shuttle bus was being trialled at Christchurch Airport.
His ideas were against a backdrop of stalled patronage of Tauranga's Bay Hopper bus service. He said patronage that grew by an average of 18 per cent a year to reach 1.8 million passengers by 2012, had been stagnant for the past four years.
Mr von Dadelszen said light rail was horrendously expensive whereas the technology for driverless buses had arrived and was being tested in France.
Public transportation company Keolis had joined forces with French smart shuttle manufacturer Navya to launch the world's first autonomous driverless public transport service in the city of Lyon.
He said the regional council should not commit to a new nine-year bus service operating contract without doing the research needed to make a well-considered decision.
Otherwise it ran the risk of incurring large additional costs when it tried to renegotiate the contract.
"We should be planning now for a huge change in transport modes.''
Mr von Dadelszen, a member of the regional council's public transport committee, said Tauranga could have the start of an autonomous service next year.
"This can happen now. It just needs the Tauranga City Council's buy-in to get the infrastructure in place," he said in his paper.
His preferred first route for driverless buses was Cameron Rd, with a park 'n' ride at Tauranga Racecourse. He envisaged a dedicated lane, perhaps up the middle of the road, until the public got used to autonomous transport.
"Design it so that in time it can be integrated into the roading proper."
It should run all the time and be cheap to use, he said.
Mr Von Dadelszen favoured Mount Maunganui to Papamoa as the second route for driverless buses.
Lyall Thurston, the regional council's public transport committee chairman, said no one scoffed at the paper because the ground for these technologies was moving so quickly.
"There is so much happening in this space - it is about putting it all together."
Mr von Dadelszen's ideas along with ideas of other enthusiastic and committed individuals would be woven into council planning, he said.
Greg Brownless, Tauranga's mayor, said the long-term bus operating contract should not preclude the regional council from taking advantage of new technologies.
He liked the increased frequency and convenience of shuttle buses.
"I definitely see merit in the idea."
Driverless vehicle technology:
• Vehicle equipped with many types of sensors
• Knows where it is within a fraction of a millimetre
• Battery powered and no steering wheel
• No clear front or back
• Follows pre-programmed routes which are easily reconfigured