Driverless cars: they promise to make our journeys easier, roads safer and world greener.

And according to one of many failed predictions, hundreds of them were supposed to have hit our highways late last year.

Another more pessimistic prediction, which came out of a report by consultants MRCagney last year, was that vehicles driven by us wouldn't be rendered obsolete until the middle of the century.

A researcher who has just published a book as part of a Law Foundation project didn't attempt to guess when the driverless dawn might come.


Rather, Michael Cameron argues, the future is up to New Zealand to decide - and we'll need to be proactive if we want to reap the best benefits of the technology.

"As [science fiction writer] William Gibson said, the future is here, it's just not very evenly distributed," Cameron says.

"Driverless vehicles by Waymo and others are cruising round the streets of Arizona and California as we speak, and this timely reform of New Zealand laws is needed if we don't want the benefits to pass us by."

Neglecting to do so could have "huge implications" - as it would not only delay hoped-for benefits around safety, congestion, cheap and convenient mobility, but prevent some of them from materialising at all, and even lead to increased congestion and urban decline.

"Most worrying of all is the concern that New Zealand could end up on the wrong side of history," he says.

"Everyone now seems to agree that a robotic revolution is coming and that driverless vehicles are the ground floor."

Far from being the stuff of science fiction movies like Minority Report, driverless vehicles are already here. Photo / Supplied
Far from being the stuff of science fiction movies like Minority Report, driverless vehicles are already here. Photo / Supplied

Countries that have jumped onboard sooner will reap new jobs and ongoing prosperity, while the rest could see their traditional jobs decimated by driverless vehicles and other robots, with nothing to replace them.

"Because of its isolation, New Zealand will need to try harder than most," he says.

"Failure could saddle the country with a permanent structural disadvantage in the new world economy."

Cameron's book outlines the problems and challenges with our current law.

For example, under our current laws, it would be perfectly legal for driverless vehicles to exceed the speed limit and fail to give way.

His book also suggests specific targeted amendments to the Land Transport Act and other legislation to smooth the way for safe and effective deployment.

Another thing the book attempts to do is to dispel many of the myths surrounding driverless cars.

Myth 1: Someone can predict a certain year when driverless vehicles are going to become prevalent in New Zealand.

"Driverless vehicles are not coming on a set date like Halley's Comet," he says.

"They have in fact already been invented."

Along with vehicles now being operated by Google, Silicon Valley company Nuro AI has just launched a robotic delivery vehicle.

At present, there are no plans to launch these vehicles in New Zealand, and it isn't clear how they'd even get on to the road legally in our country.

"If we want them to come here we have to make it happen."

Myth 2: Driverless cars will never be as safe as a human behind the wheel.

Driverless vehicles have so many safety advantages over human drivers, it is simply difficult to see how they wouldn't be significantly safer.

With no human driver, are cars like this Tesla the answer to our road toll? Photo / File
With no human driver, are cars like this Tesla the answer to our road toll? Photo / File

"First there are the obvious advantages in that driverless vehicles never get sleepy, or drunk, or distracted," Cameron says.

"On top of this is the reality that once one driverless vehicle learns to do something better, this knowledge is going to be automatically rolled out to all the compatible models of that vehicle."

In this way, a driverless vehicle fleet is essentially a hive mind, getting better and better all the time.

Myth 3: Having a mix of driverless vehicles and human driven vehicles on the road is dangerous and problematic.

It is a common misconception that driverless vehicles can't safely share the road with human-driven vehicles.

This is typically based on the belief that they function by communicating and co-ordinating with other driverless vehicles.

"In reality they are perfectly capable of operating in normal human-driven traffic using just their sensors and GPS, and this will bring tremendous safety and other advantages," Cameron says.

"But once you have some lanes or roads that are reserved for driverless vehicles then this brings even more benefits into play. It allows for even greater safety, and it also allows vehicles to co-ordinate with each other and drastically reduce congestion."

Myth 4: Driverless vehicles need special infrastructure

Many people assume driverless cars have to rely on special electronic beacons embedded in the road, or other external infrastructure that keeps them on the straight and narrow.

Previous attempts to create driverless cars, such as GM's 1964 Firebird, failed because they required expensive infrastructure in the form of buried cables that would be followed by the vehicles.

The prototype gyrocar can drive itself, or be controlled through a computer screen. Photo / Bloomberg
The prototype gyrocar can drive itself, or be controlled through a computer screen. Photo / Bloomberg

The reason driverless vehicles are about to take off is that they no longer require such support.

Rather, they can get by on sensors and GPS, coupled with extensive 3D maps.

Myth 5: People who design driverless vehicles will be programming them to value some lives over others

One of the favourite tropes of popular literature on driverless vehicles is to construct elaborate hypothetical scenarios about a vehicle facing a choice over who it should crash into, and speculating as to how manufacturers would programme their vehicles to react.

How would they decide which life was more valuable?

Would they favour young over old?

Would they favour their occupants over those outside the vehicle?

Ohmio's driverless shuttles have been trialled in Christchurch. Photo / Supplied
Ohmio's driverless shuttles have been trialled in Christchurch. Photo / Supplied

"The reality is that driverless vehicles will not be able to tell the difference between different types of people, and they will take the course of action that is less likely to cause harm," Cameron says.

"And in most or possibly even all cases, simply slamming on the brakes will likely be sufficient as a universal evasive strategy."

Myth 6: Driverless vehicles will inevitably solve congestion and all our other problems, and there are no downsides we must guard against

Just as with the automobile, there may be downsides to driverless vehicles.

While we all hope driverless vehicles might reduce congestion, it is just as possible that they could increase congestion if we fail to manage their introduction well.

"If driverless vehicles are going to be as cheap and convenient as hoped, then initial reductions in congestion could be eroded by people taking more trips," Cameron says.

"And even if transport consumers win, urban communities that rely on foot traffic for their liveability and character may have that character destroyed, as the people sweep past empty cafes and boulevards on their way to another pinpoint delivery."

Myth 7: Driverless vehicles pose an existential threat to public transport

There is plenty of worry about the potential for ride-sharing fleets to slash demand for public transport, effectively making it uneconomic for authorities to continue providing it in some areas.

While that is a valid concern, Cameron says, it should also be remembered that ride-sharing fleets could also be a boon for public transport under some conditions.

"After all, a bus fleet is just another kind of ride-sharing fleet," he says.

"There is nothing to stop bus companies from incorporating app-based ride-sharing technology and driverless vehicles into their services."

Companies could still have bus stops as before, but the riders would be able to indicate when they wanted to be picked up and where they wanted to go.

Instead of always sending a huge bus at infrequent intervals, the company could provide a better service at a lower cost by deploying the best-sized vehicles at the best times.

The distinction between bus services and taxi services would begin to blur, he says, although taxis would probably be a bit larger on average to serve multiple riders on similar routes.

Myth 8: Driverless vehicles will ultimately mean the rest of us won't be allowed to drive our own vehicles

Though it is likely some lanes or roads would eventually be reserved for the exclusive use of driverless vehicles, it was unlikely human-driven vehicles would completely disappear.

"Instead, they will probably follow the trajectory of horse-driven transport, become more of a niche or recreational activity," he says.

"You might not be able to ride a horse on the motorway today, but you can still ride a horse."

• Cameron's book, Realising the Potential of Driverless Vehicles, is published by the New Zealand Law Foundation, and is available from Unity Books and Amazon.