Driverless cars could soon be commonplace on our roads - but officials are still grappling with issues including who is liable if a car crashes with nobody behind the wheel.

Transport Minister Simon Bridges has spoken about the potential for New Zealand roads to be used to test driverless vehicles, and the topic is on the agenda this week as he attends an international transport forum in Germany.

"New Zealand is already perceived as tech savvy, that moves with the times and does get on with things," Mr Bridges told the Weekend Herald.

"The technology is basically there but we are going to have to work with pace to get on with the regulatory regime and how we deal with issues like insurance," he said.


Google's California staff have expressed an interest in testing driverless cars in New Zealand.

It has been testing its own driverless car for some time, with cameras and sensors detecting traffic and objects and plotting movements as the car moves.

And while hurtling along at 100km/h without anyone at the wheel is hard to fathom, developers insist driverless cars will be safer, given human error accounts for the vast majority of accidents.

New Zealand transport officials have met Google staff and other companies, including Nissan Motor Company in Yokohama, Japan.

Testing could take place immediately without any legislative changes, but advice prepared for Mr Bridges in February outlines other issues.

"The primary legal concern raised by the testing of a vehicle without a competent human in the driving seat is not with ensuring the safety of the testing itself," wrote Iain McGlinchy, principal adviser at the Ministry of Transport.

"We consider the NZ Transport Agency and NZ Police already have sufficient powers to ensure public safety during any testing. "The key question is whether legal liability can be assigned to an appropriate entity in the event of an offence or accident occurring. In this case, assignment of criminal liability, which focuses on the driver, would be uncertain."

Work to develop a code of practice in the United Kingdom following the announcement of driverless vehicle tests there will likely inform any necessary work here.


During the UK trials, driverless cars will still have a passenger ready to take over if necessary. The technology is rapidly improving. BMW recently demonstrated a valet service that allows people to summon their car through a smartphone.

A 2013 Ministry of Transport briefing paper delved further into the question of a fallout from a car crashing with no one behind the wheel.

Many penalties in transport law were designed to fall on the driver "who is assumed to be a natural person".

New Zealand holds the presidency of the International Transport Forum that Mr Bridges is attending in Leipzig, Germany. He said the subject of autonomous vehicles and drones was raised frequently.

"It's not on us today but myself and the ministry are thinking about this. It is not a 2030 issue - this is quite a bit sooner."

Jose Viegas, ITF Secretary General, said New Zealand's adoption of autonomous vehicles would depend on regulatory clarity and affordability.