The transition to electric and driverless cars has been hailed in some quarters as the most transformational social development since the Internet.
Autonomous vehicles are being tested around the world as cities, governments and communities embrace the emergence of driverless technology.
Newcastle aims to join a select number of Australian cities in a trial this year, with the council seeking qualified operators for a driverless shuttle bus in the city.
An expert in neuropsychology believes that, while mass transport is almost here, fully autonomous vehicles are still “at least a generation” away.
Professor Kristen Pammer, who studies attentional allocation in driving, reading and dyslexia, provided a free public lecture at the Newcastle Conservatorium last week on Autonomous Vehicles: Fact vs Fiction.
She says there are different stages of automation – from zero, where the human oversees the driving, through to five, in which no human driver is required, and everyone can be a passenger.
“Cars that don’t require a driver, steering wheel or foot pedal are, in my personal opinion, about a generation away,” she tells Newcastle Weekly.
Professor Pammer believes the introduction of fully autonomous vehicles will lead to an increase in safety.
Worldwide, more than 1.3 million people, including about 1,000 in Australia, are killed in car accidents each year, with 93% of those caused by driver error.
“It will save billions of dollars in terms of car crashes and injuries,” Professor Pammer says.
“Then there’s the smart city development – it will reduce congestion, emissions, and make transport more efficient.
“But these [advantages] are really only going to become apparent once we have full autonomy and a connected system.
“Therein lies the problem – to get to that point.”
Professor Pammer argues potential issues include hijackings of the computer system; legal implications if there is an injury or crash; and moral decision-making dilemmas when a human cannot take control.
She says, when a person is engaged in non-driver related tasks, such as checking emails or sleeping, it can take between eight to 25 seconds to formulate a response.
This, according to Professor Pammer, will potentially lead to a situation where the driver is locked out in an emergency because they cannot respond in time.
“So, what decision does the car make?” she asks.
“You’re now handing over the vehicle, which is effectively a robot.
“In the event of an inevitable crash and loss of life, there might be a scenario where the car has to choose whether to run over a pedestrian or run you off a bridge or into a concrete barrier.
“What if the pedestrian is a young or elderly person or a dog – you’re affording moral decision-making onto a robot in a way that will impact on you.
“It can blow out of control.”
NSW legislation around autonomous vehicles currently requires a trained human operator to always be on board.
The Newcastle trial will involve a small shuttle carrying about 12 people at a time through some of the city’s most scenic areas, including beaches and the harbour front.
The trial, expected to last at least a year as part of the Newcastle Smart City Strategy, will go through a safety testing phase before people can ride the shuttle free of charge.
Newcastle council was contacted for an update on the planned trial.