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What Aussies really think of driverless cars

Senior Mercedes engineering executive Jochen Haab with the Level 3 autonomous driving test Sydney to Melbourne via Canberra.
Senior Mercedes engineering executive Jochen Haab with the Level 3 autonomous driving test Sydney to Melbourne via Canberra.

THE people have spoken on driverless cars.

A survey of more than 18,000 motorists showed that the majority of drivers don't want autonomous cars on the road.

Men were more likely to accept driverless cars on the road than women, with 29 per cent of male respondents to the survey by toll operator Eastlink confirming they would want fully autonomous features on their next vehicle compared to just 17 per cent of females.

This year's survey showed a sizeable decline in those surveyed willing to have driverless technology in their next vehicle compared to last year.

However, respondents were more likely to accept driverless capability in their next car if it was restricted to freeway driving. This acceptance grew if the driver was required to monitor the situation at all times.

Car makers are rushing to build autonomous cars, but do we want them on our roads?
Car makers are rushing to build autonomous cars, but do we want them on our roads?

According to Eastlink marketing manager Doug Spencer-Roy, this shows that motorists are increasingly looking for the latest active safety technologies in their next vehicle.

"This is great news, as the latest driver assistance features deliver many safety benefits and they are increasingly available in family cars," says Spencer-Roy.

"Widespread adoption of these features will make roads safer."

The survey showed that Australian motorists were overwhelmingly still in favour of having a human in control of the vehicle - 84 per cent of respondents said they would ride as a passenger if there was a person to monitor and take control if needed.

"These are significant hurdles for the vehicle automation industry to overcome," Spencer-Roy says.

"EastLink believes that motorists must first become accustomed to, and gain trust in driver assistance technologies, using these technologies every day in their family car before they will accept fully self-driving cars."

The issue of trust mirrors what John Krafcik - boss of Google's driverless car division Waymo - believes is one of the biggest challenges for autonomous vehicles.

Krafcik puts this down to human error during the testing process for which the burgeoning technology is often blamed. Kracfick made the comments after an incident with one of Waymo's driverless test vehicles and a motorcycle.

Waymo self-driving test vehicle.
Waymo self-driving test vehicle.

"As professional vehicle operators, our test drivers undergo rigorous training that includes defensive driving courses, including guidance on responding to fast-moving scenarios on the road," Krafcik says.

"However, some dynamic situations still challenge human drivers. People are often called upon to make split-second decisions with insufficient context."

In attributing the motorbike accident to human error, Krafcik reckons the car would not have made the same blunder were it acting on information received via the autonomous driving technology.

"We designed our technology to see 360 degrees … at all times. This constant, vigilant monitoring of the car's surroundings informs our technology's driving decisions and can lead to safer outcomes," he says.

"Our review of this incident confirmed that our technology would have avoided the collision by taking a safer course of action."

Volkswagen's boss Herbert Diess believes safety is paramount for driverless cars as the public won't accept autonomous cars unless they are 1000 times better than humans at driving.

"A ratio of 10-to-one is nowhere near good enough. We have approximately 3,200 traffic fatalities in Germany each year. It would be a disaster if we had even 320 deaths due to driverless cars," says Diess.

James Goodwin the boss of the Australian New Car Assessment Program (ANCAP) believes that the recent establishment of a federal office of future transport technologies is vital to building trust in driverless vehicles and making sure safety comes first.

"As we move to an automated transport future, building consumer, industry and regulator confidence is key," says Goodwin.

"Automated vehicle technology is no longer the future, it is in today's new cars, and as the building blocks for full automation the establishment of a dedicated office shows national leadership and confidence.

"ANCAP is currently undertaking independent safety testing of Level 2 autonomous technologies including intelligent speed assistance, autonomous emergency braking and active lane-keep assistance.

"Safety is a critical element which must carry through in all preparations for an autonomous future," he says.

Some makers are exploring more extreme measures to earn trust of other road users and pedestrians.

Jaguar Land Rover has fitted 'virtual eyes' to intelligent pods to understand how humans will trust self-driving vehicles.
Jaguar Land Rover has fitted 'virtual eyes' to intelligent pods to understand how humans will trust self-driving vehicles.

Jaguar Land Rover have designed some autonomous concepts with giant eyes that would look at pedestrians as they are about to cross the road to acknowledge that they have been spotted in a similar way to how humans interact with other road users.

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