Autonomous or driverless vehicles (AVs) are receiving plenty of publicity, not all of it positive, but the reality is the technology at various levels is becoming increasingly available in more new vehicles.
AVs have the potential to make our roads safer and ease traffic congestion. This high-tech stuff is not just applicable to cars and SUVs, but light commercial vehicles and even heavy trucks are adopting it too.
It's an exciting time for the motor industry. I'm eager to see where automation takes us in the next 20-30 years, together with the move to electric or hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, but that's a whole other subject.
Lowering the road toll will be possible as the computers that control AV operation don't drive drunk or drugged, don't drive beyond their abilities, don't drive while being distracted by cell phones, cigarettes, satellite navigation and sound systems.
Reducing road accidents and the medical and social costs, estimated at over $4.2 billion a year in New Zealand, will not happen overnight. Much lower accident rates are a longer-term possibility when most vehicles on the road have autonomous ability, which is not expected until the middle of the century.
The flow on effect, apart from reduced medical and social costs, will be lower insurance premiums and fewer claims.
None of the vehicles on sale in New Zealand right now are fully autonomous.
Like any new tech, full AVs will only come onto the market in small numbers of premium priced vehicles in the next two or three years. As the technology becomes more affordable, it will filter down the market to those vehicles which sell in larger numbers.
Our old vehicle fleet – average age 14 years – is another hindrance, as even by 2035 there will be a considerable number of vehicles that won't be compatible with intelligent transport however it has advanced by then.
AVs will also be able to reduce congestion by improving traffic flow as they travel closer together, using less road space and saving fuel.
Last year the NZ Institute of Economic Research estimated traffic congestion in the greater Auckland area was costing the New Zealand economy up to $2 billion annually.
There are five levels of autonomy recognised by the international motor industry. Level 0 is what we have all been doing for decades with the driver responsible for total control of the vehicle. Level 1 autonomy is now available in many vehicles in the form of autonomous emergency braking and dynamic cruise control.
Automatic braking is often combined with all-speed radar cruise control. This automatically slows the vehicle down if it detects you are getting too close to the car in front. It will also accelerate your vehicle when the car in front moves again.
Level 2 includes both acceleration and braking and some steering automation, using technology such as lane centering or lane departure alert. This only works when lanes are clearly marked on the road.
Some of our cars now have this technology but the driver still must be alert and remain in charge of the vehicle, ready to react at a moment's notice.
Level 3 autonomy is the contentious area where drivers can let the vehicle handle safety critical functions under certain traffic or weather conditions. A driver still has to be present and intervene when the vehicle gives any visual or audible warnings.
It would seem some of the accidents involving autonomous vehicles in North America have occurred because drivers have not intervened when the vehicle alerted them.
Level 4 autonomy is where the vehicle is designed to perform all safety critical driving and monitor road conditions for an entire trip.
But there is still a get out clause at Level 4 autonomy – the vehicle will still only operate within its design domain, meaning it does not cover every driving scenario such as perhaps an unsealed back country road with no lane markings or crash barriers at night time. A driver still needs to be aware they might have to take control of the vehicle.
Level 5 autonomy is a fully automatic system that will operate a vehicle like a human driver in every driving scenario, including extreme environments. A steering wheel and pedals for braking and acceleration may be optional.
Some of the accidents which have occurred internationally have come down to drivers expecting their vehicle to have Level 5 tech when it hasn't.
AV technology will help our company reduce its carbon footprint and reach our company's goal of a 90 per cent reduction in 2010 vehicle CO2 emissions by 2050.
• Neeraj Lala is the general manager for product planning and new vehicles at Toyota New Zealand.