Why is the Government over-spending on motorways when new technologies could render them white elephants?

Do we really need to be spending so much on motorways? Do we really think cars and trucks will use the roads in the same way in 50 years?

We're certainly investing as if they will be. In contrast with our record on research and development spending, New Zealand is investing more heavily in roads and motorways than others in the OECD.

The New Zealand Institute of Economic Research published a paper this week showing we have been spending 20-40 per cent more than the OECD average since 2008 as the Government has pushed ahead with its Roads of National Significance.


These included big projects in Auckland such as the Waterview connection and Victoria Park Tunnel, as well as Wellington's Transmission Gully and Kapiti Expressway projects.

The spending is expected to ramp up from $3.4 billion next year to $4.4b a year by 2024/25.

For a Government that prides itself on its frugality and caution when spending money, it is much more aggressive with road investment.

But will we need all these motorways in 2065?

NZIER questions this, given the rapid development of new technologies for driverless cars, collision avoidance, assisted braking and car-to-car communication.

The rapid adoption of electric cars could also short-circuit the Government's big spending plans.

First, tests are already being done with "platooning" of cars that can drive closely together in lines in a managed way that reduces congestion.

There is also the potential for Uber-style services that allow car parking and car pooling in a way that reduces car and motorway use.


Secondly, these new technologies could bring better road safety through fewer collisions and accidents as predictive technologies help the driver brake, decelerate and swerve to avoid crashes.

Assisted braking and electronic stability control are just a taster of things to come.

New Zealand already spends $650 million a year making existing roads safer and promoting road safety.

These technologies are being more rapidly adopted than previous new technologies, raising the risk that by the time the motorways are fully built and paid for they way we use our cars will have changed dramatically.

Anyone watching the development and adoption of smartphones over the past seven years will realise how quickly the landscape could change.

The third spanner in the works for the heavy motorway spending is how it is currently funded.

Motorists pay a levy when they buy fuel, which is then redirected into road maintenance, new roads and road safety campaigns.

But the rapid adoption of more efficient hybrid and plug-in electric cars could blow a hole in that revenue base.

Surely it's time for the Government to take a lighter and cheaper approach that looks over the horizon at the coming benefits of new technologies.