It may seem like a scene out of a utopian movie, but an American futurist says bikes that pedal themselves and driverless buses could be the future of New Zealand's transport system.

And although experts here agree it's going to happen - a trial of driverless shuttles by company Ohmio is already under way in Christchurch - the tech and transport sector is divided on exactly when autonomous vehicles will hit the road en masse.

The potential safety benefits of driverless cars have been discussed for decades - 90 per cent of crashes in New Zealand are caused by driver error, which could theoretically be eliminated if vehicles were automated.

Read more: Self-driving vehicles company launches in Christchurch


However, critics have argued "zombie cars" driving around empty would worsen congestion.

"The nightmare scenario is that you'll have a traffic jam of empty cars as people send their cars to run errands for them while they sit at work or sit at home," said Greg Lindsay, a New York-based journalist, futurist and visiting scholar of New York University's Rudin Center for Transportation Policy & Management.

Greg Lindsay with some autonomous vehicles in nuTonomy's lab at the National University of Singapore. Photo / Supplied by Greg Lindsay
Greg Lindsay with some autonomous vehicles in nuTonomy's lab at the National University of Singapore. Photo / Supplied by Greg Lindsay

Speaking to the Herald on Sunday ahead of the T-Tech Transport Innovation Conference in Auckland on March 19 and 20, Lindsay said advances in technology could lead to the creation of a new type of vehicle that could help unclog roads.

"The first autonomous vehicle is most likely not going to be a car that drives itself - it's going to be [a shuttle] and it's going to be running prescribed routes.

"It's probably going to be really cheap to run. It's most likely going to be moving slowly but relatively painlessly."

He also expected ride sharing to continue to increase and sales of electric bikes - including models that could pedal themselves to people who booked them - to soar in New Zealand in the near future.

Ohmio vehicles in Christchurch. Photo / Supplied by Ohmio
Ohmio vehicles in Christchurch. Photo / Supplied by Ohmio

A report released last month by KPMG on 20 countries' openness and preparedness for autonomous transport concluded although New Zealand law didn't require vehicles to contain drivers, poor 4G coverage and inappropriate infrastructure could prevent the uptake of autonomous vehicles.

However, Ministry of Transport manager of strategic policy and innovation Richard Cross said the authority didn't believe these were major barriers.


"Most of the autonomous vehicles currently being developed are designed to be self sufficient, so the vehicle manufacturers don't want their vehicles to be dependent on infrastructure provided by someone else."

Instead autonomous vehicles were designed to drive on a range of different road conditions and often used onboard sensors, cameras and Ridar - a bike traffic warning system - rather than 4G.

The Ministry supported the shift towards autonomous vehicles and was constantly reviewing legislation to help encourage this.

But, Cross would not be drawn on when he expected them to be on the roads.

"Nobody really knows the answer to that question. I guess what we do know is it's advancing really quickly and I think we're looking at it as something that is more likely to be a gradual transition than and instant shift," he said.

An Ohmio autonomous vehicle. Photo / Supplied by Ohmio
An Ohmio autonomous vehicle. Photo / Supplied by Ohmio

Auckland Transport (AT) spokesman James Ireland said although the organisation didn't have immediate plans to roll out driverless buses, it continued to review the need for them as new infrastructure was built.

A report produced by University College London and the University of Auckland in October 2015, which AT commissioned, found at least half the city's vehicles would need to be autonomous to justify reconfiguring roads to suit them.

"This mark is expected to be reached by 2055 and could result in a 22 per cent improvement in road capacity. By 2075 the entire fleet is predicted to have shifted to connected and autonomous vehicles," Ireland said.

University of Waikato's Professor Nicola Starkey, who is researching people's perceptions of autonomous vehicles and ride sharing, said the shift would likely occur gradually over the next 20 years.

Although most respondents of a 2017 survey she and colleagues conducted liked the idea of autonomous vehicles, very few wanted to travel in a car without a steering wheel.

"[It's] quite interesting because the whole idea of an autonomous vehicle is you don't really need to take control. But I think the illusion of being able to steer - having a steering wheel there - mattered a lot to people," she told the Herald on Sunday.

"I think one of the hardest things will be to give up solo car ownership, because essentially the only way to solve transport problems, particularly in Auckland, would be to have fewer vehicles on the road and essentially have more shared vehicle use, shared vehicle ownership."

Dave Verma, Australasia AV initiative director at Ohmio's parent company HMI, said people saw cars as status symbols, freedom and self-expression as well as transport.

Getting people to change their transport habits would require social pressure as well as financially penalising people who owned cars.