New Zealand could be a test bed for driverless cars, says Associate Transport Minister Tim Macindoe.
Macindoe put out the welcome mat at the International Transport Forum summit in Germany for carmakers to run trials of the new generation vehicles in New Zealand.
He also revealed that the Government already was in talks with an unnamed autonomous carmaker about coming to New Zealand for a pilot project.
The minister said New Zealand had special advantages that could appeal to the industry. One he cited was a quirk in New Zealand's transport law that meant there was no requirement for vehicles to have a driver.
This oversight, which he said was simply an odd feature of the law, could work in New Zealand's favour as it meant the legal framework for driverless cars did not require wholesale reform. Germany is one of the few modern economies that has passed a law allowing driverless cars to use public roads, though the industry still has to satisfy other standards and regulations before such vehicles could take to the streets.
New Zealand has one trial under way with a driverless van using roads near Christchurch Airport. Macindoe said the van was only going about 5km/h as the technology was trialled in a joint project between Auckland-based HMI Technologies and Christchurch Airport using a French-designed Navya vehicle.
"As a government we're watching it very closely," Macindoe said. He said the process had to be managed so it was safe for other road users but "we may be able to make it smoother for some companies to come into our country and test their vehicles."
Macindoe said an advantage to New Zealand from driverless trials was that it could help shape vehicle standards when, as expected, the driverless revolution gathers pace in the next decade. New Zealand would want to ensure conformity in vehicles when it came to importing the machines.
Driverless cars are seen as being safer, cleaner and more efficient that the existing global car fleet. But significant barriers to the growth of the industry exist in road safety laws, uncertainty about legal responsibility for crashes and even such issues as hacking into the software controlling the vehicles and the control of data produced by the technology. The forum, a policy think tank associated with the OECD, is exploring these issues at the Leipzig summit.
The minister took part in a ITF panel session on regulating automated and autonomous driving where he also signalled that the Government was keen to get more people into cars in Auckland. He said the aim was to lift the average number of people in cars, which at present was 1.3 per vehicle. If that number was increased it would help ease congestion.
He said automated vehicles could encourage ride sharing.