Christchurch Releasing Self-driving Electric Vehicles on the Streets
Posted on September 30, 2017
Traffic congestion is one of modern-day calamities. Cars, which should be a way to get around quickly, turn into a barely moving prison as you slowly lose the will to live stuck in the morning rush. It is a worldwide problem around cities which shows no sign of improvement as car sales are continuously on the increase. Various initiatives have tried to discourage people to use their cars, such as London putting into place a congestion charge area for driving into the capital’s centre, Park & Ride services and carpool systems, but their real success is difficult to estimate.
In New Zealand, research commissioned by the government and Auckland’s city council into solutions to ease traffic congestion in the capital claims that at least half of the cars currently on the road would no longer be needed if a fleet of driverless cars were introduced.
The International Transport Forum -a global think-tank for transport policies- would seem to agree with those results as their study of data from Lisbon in Portugal would suggest that with a fleet of TaxiBots –self-driving vehices shared by several passengers- and AutoVots –self-driving vehicles used by a single person-, 50% of cars in a mid-sized city would become superfluous. With the support of public transport, this number would rise to 90%.
The effect of driverless vehicles on traffic would be compounded by the fact that they would also vastly diminish the need to have parking space, freeing up 1.5 million m2, the equivalent of 210 rugby fields, which could be used as road space, easing congestion further.
However, public opinion still has some way to go before autonomous vehicles are a common sight on the streets. Their supporters would argue that human error and non-respect of driving rules are a major cause of accidents, while detractors would point out much-publicised accidents such as that of Google’s Lexus in February 2016 which collided with the side of a bus, destroying its radar; how the occupant of a Tesla driverless car died while the vehicle attempted to drive under the trailer of a truck at full speed or how a Volvo speeded up towards a group of pedestrians because the owner of the car hadn’t purchased the pedestrian recognition software that came as an extra.
It is true that the technology is not perfect but it is certain that it will improve over time. Other thorny issues brought up by autonomous cars are that of liability in case of an accident and how insurers would handle it, that of cybersecurity as driverless means connected and therefore the risk of being hacked and whether the driving code needs to be re-written to incorporate the special case of driverless vehicles.
Whichever side you lean towards, New Zealand has decided to trial self-driving vehicles and you will be able to see them in action in certain parts of Christchurch.
Developed and manufactured by an Auckland-based company, HMI Technologies, the vehicles will first be deployed in ‘controlled’ environments where traffic is predictable and less busy, such as retirement villages, airports, or university campuses for example.
Although they may not be a household name, HMI have been developing ‘intelligent’ transport solutions for 15 years and already have three driverless vehicle trials in New Zealand and Australia, including one at Christchurch Airport, which was the first one ever in the country.
As far as controlled environments are concerned, the airport was perfect to test and improve those shuttles, carrying passengers and luggage over short distances with relatively fewer pededestrians and less traffic than they may encounter ina city. HMI was keen, however, to emphasize the safety of the technology and how precise the vehicles can be, from taking appropriate actions in response to unexpected situations, such as someone crossing their paths, to following complex pre-programmed routes to the millimeter.
Each Smart shuttle can transport up to 10 seated passengers plus 5 standing and is fully electric. They have no steering wheel and they don’t have a front or back as such -both ends look the same- which makes them very versatile as they can be linked together to form a longer convoy if needed.
They are equipped with self-mapping AI, meaning that they only need to be driven once under human supervision to remember a route. Better still, reconfiguring pre-programmed routes is simple.
The shuttles have a very precised positioning system which can detect their exact location to within 2cm. Although they are capable of top speeds of 50km/h, they are designed to run mostly no faster than 25km/h. They are also economical, which councils are always glad about, as a battery can theoretically last for up to 10 hours, although in reality it’s more likely to run out of juice after 5 or 6 hours.
The extension of the trial to other parts of Christchuch has the support of the Christchurch City Council of course, but also of the University of Canterbury, the NZ Transport Agency and the Ministry of Transport.
It will initially be confined to closed roads around the airport but it is hope that they can soon be used to ferry passengers between the airport terminals and car parks.
Once the technology is proven safe, HMI’s vehicles will be rolled out to public roads although it is unlikely to be at least in the next year.
HMI Technologies has scheduled production of four further models in 2018 to cater for all capacity needs, from small shuttles similar to those used at the airport, to freight pods and larger vehicles, and is looking for a site in Christchurch to establish its factory. Needless to say that Christchurch city council is very excited at the prospect of being at the centre of such high-tech industry.
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