The prospect of cars travelling New Zealand highways with no one behind the wheel is moving closer says new Transport Minister Simon Bridges. Officials are reviewing legislation allowing for the testing of umanned autonomous vehicles on public roads.
Mr Bridges has pledged to work with environmental interests while also pursuing the Government's road building programme.
Mr Bridges said he was committed to "a balanced approach" and ongoing investment roads were important even from a green perspective, "over time as we move to electric vehicles and autonomous vehicles".
Mr Bridges said the Government was not doing a great deal to accommodate autonomous vehicle technology, "but I don't think there's any doubt that if you look at what's going on internationally, maybe not in the next couple of years, but over time we will see driverless vehicles and that will have implications, like for example less congestion because vehicles can travel closer together".
The prospects for driverless cars on New Zealand's roads was discussed in the Ministry of Transport's recently published the Intelligent Transport Systems Technology Action Plan. The document discusses how information technology could improve New Zealand's transport sector and what the Government can do to promote that.
The plan suggests New Zealand could be promoted "internationally as a test-bed for new technologies".
It notes it is "currently legal in New Zealand for testing of driverless vehicles to take place on public roads, provided the vehicle meets relevant standards and a competent person is in the vehicle who can take control if required".
That type of testing posed no specific legal issues, "and could potentially commence immediately".
"Nevertheless, there will be benefits in reviewing and clarifying the regulations around the testing of such vehicles where no drivers are present."
A Ministry of Transport spokeswoman said the ministry had been in discussions with several foreign companies about potential autonomous vehicle trials.
While the ministry's initial investigations had found no obvious legal barriers to the testing of unmanned vehicles "the law is unclear on who would be considered to be at fault if an offence was committed by a vehicle without a human behind the steering wheel".
AA motoring affairs general manager Mike Noon said that while the review was looking at legal implications of companies testing unmanned vehicles on public roads, "I don't know that we'd really want them to, certainly at this stage of the development".
Driverless cars were widely expected to go into commercial production within the next five years, the ministry spokeswoman said.