Imagine having a nap as your car drives you to work. It's an enticing thought, and one that engineers have been tackling since the 1920s. The first truly autonomous prototype appeared in 1986, from researchers at Pennsylvania's Carnegie Mellon University. It led to five generations of boxy, 90s prototypes that could drive themselves using Sun, which was a sort of pre-Windows operating system.
They've come some way since, with Google bearing the torch. Now companies such as Mercedes Benz, Tesla, and Volvo are all on the bandwagon, with Volvo planning the Southern Hemisphere's first automated car tests in November. And they're happening in Adelaide.
In a partnership with Bosch, Telstra, Flinders University, and the Australian Road Research Board (ARRB), Volvo will drive automated XC90 vehicles around closed lanes of the Southern Expressway and Adelaide Airport. As Gerard Waldon, managing director of the ARRB, told VICE, "the tests include multiple vehicles conducting maneuvers such as overtaking, lanes changes, emergency braking, and the use of on/off ramps."
But there's another, less publicized aspect to the tests: stimulating South Australia's ailing economy.
In a story echoed across the continent, the Festival State was once a dynamo of manufacturing, most of which has since moved to Asia. The results, as CommSec's State of the States 2015 report found, are that SA is almost the country's weakest economy, just ahead of Tasmania. Unemployment in SA is currently at 8.3 percent—a 15 year high.
An autonomous test drive from Google
This desperation lends the SA Government a certain type of imaginative thinking, which sees sci-fi employment opportunities taken a little more seriously. In January this lead SA Transport Minister Stephen Mullighan to California to see Google's work on autonomous cars. Coming back, he was convinced SA should become Australia's driverless car capital. As he somewhat defensively told Indaily "Every politician who talks about this is being derided or mocked about it… It ignores the very significant opportunities for the community in the future."
This led to six months of lobbying Swedish car manufacturer, Volvo, to run tests in Adelaide that could have been run in Sweden. Not that head of ARRB, Gerard Waldon, really tries to hide that. "High profile activity like this puts SA on the map," he said. "In the longer term there will need to be more trials in more places, with more brands involved, but until people get up close and personal the technology just isn't real to them."
Volvo's auto pilot system includes steering, braking, and parking, using a series of sensors linked to the car's pilot software. And if something goes wrong and a human is unable to take over, the car will automatically pull over to the side of the road.
Of course, this question—what if something goes wrong?—will be the next hurdle facing automatic car makers, here and overseas. Of Google's fleet of 20 autonomous cars, 11 have been involved in accidents over six years, although none of them were the fault of the vehicle.
Regardless of fault, a 2011 survey of more than 2,000 US and UK consumers found only 49 percent would be comfortable riding in a driverless car.
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