Could driverless cars really hit Australian roads within five years?


Driverless cars once seemed a far-off dream, but they may be on Australian roads within five years. 

Though driverless cars are not yet legally allowed on the streets of Australia, the head honcho of Volvo Australia has predicted they'll be on the nation's public highways by 2020, should the traffic laws be changed.

"I am confident that within three or four years we can have cars with autonomous drive features being driven on prescribed roads if state governments change their laws to accommodate them. Currently there are legal restrictions which require the driver to be fully in control of the car at all times. If the laws are changed we are ready to bring autonomous driven cars to the Australian market," said Kevin McCann, speaking before the first-ever Southern Hemisphere trial of a driverless car, down in Adelaide.

Passing the test phase

He may be right. Technological powerhouse, Google, has already tested driverless cars on over 225,000 kilometres of Californian streets, with just one accident - incredibly, whilst a human was at the wheel. It will be interesting to see how true Mr McCann's prediction is, given that there are reams of motoring laws that would need to be rewritten in order to accommodate these exciting new modes of transport..

Why aren't they here yet?

In addition the laws needing to be changed, software is another reason why we have yet to allow driverless cars on our roads. Because driverless cars will be heavily reliant on computer technology, the software must be infallible. In fact, Steven Shadlover of the Partners for Advanced Transportation Technology, states that driverless cars will have to prove that they are as failsafe as commercial airliners before they are worthy of the road.

Another roadblock is that driverless cars cannot yet discern between potentially harmful and benign situations. A human driver would likely brake for a large pothole in the road, as it could be damaging for the car, but would ignore floating litter. A driverless machine cannot distinguish between the two, and so would brake even when it doesn't need to - slowing the journey and potentially putting other road users at risk.

Additionally, driverless cars aren't yet able to figure out what other road users may do, with regards to sudden movements. A lorry swerving, or a child suddenly running into the road requires quick evasive action, which the human brain can rapidly react to, but driverless cars cannot - yet.

Then there is the case of ethics. Live Science uses the example of a driver taking evasive action either by suddenly swerving to the left, badly injuring his or her passengers, but surviving, or swerving right, which may have fatal consequences for a motorcyclist. These are ethical decisions that only, so far, the human brain can make.

Whether or not  Kevin McCann's prediction is correct, one thing is for sure - once they arrive, car insurance policies will need a little revamping. Don't worry, we're on it. 

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