Driverless cars: closer and safer than you think

Leipzig, Germany

The age of driverless cars and trucks is rapidly approaching and will help improve road safety by wiping out human error, a global transport summit has heard.

And Deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss says there is no doubt future generations would ride in driverless cars, agreeing roads would be safer.

"As strange as it might seem to an outside observer; they are safer, a driverless car is less likely to have an accident than a driven one," Mr Truss told Fairfax Media.

"If something is about to go wrong, they stop dead. Human error is a very significant in accidents, it is rare for there not be some human element."

Already driverless trucks are being used at Australian iron ore mines and in Europe autonomous trucks have been tested on highways.

And many key technologies needed for full automation are already common in standard cars, including parking assistance and blind spot detection.

This week German transport minister Alexander Dobrindt arrived at the International Transport Forum in Leipzig in an automated BMW.

In April he personally tested a concept driverless car from Audi.

Experts are particularly excited about the prospect of trucks travelling on freeways with driverless technology, saying it will improve safety and reduce some of the strain on long-haul truckies.

Tech companies are pushing for the driverless technology with Google a leading player, prompting car companies to also work on ideas.

The forum's secretary general José Viegas is a firm believer in the future of autonomous cars.

He said a major benefit of driverless vehicles was that the computers would follow the rules. Mr Viegas said this could be revolutionary in countries where road rules are flouted and enforcement of traffic rules is non-existent.

An ITF report said major car companies are planing on commercial production of driverless cars as soon as 2017 and the forum heard that major challenge looms over regulation of driverless cars.

Conference delegates overwhelmingly felt that autonomous driving would happen, it was just a matter of when and how.

"Most crashes involve human error. If greater autonomous operation reduces or eliminates these error, then benefits for road safety may be substantial," the report states.

Mr Truss, who is also Transport Minister, said there was positive talk at the conference about driverless cars and headway was being made on how governments could manage the new technology on roads.

He said the challenge will be to convince people to use the technology and that it would not happen overnight.

"A next generation of drivers, maybe not the next generation, a next generation of drivers will have faith in that technologies that older drivers will have trouble learning."

Major challenges remain to the evolution of driverless cars other than regulation and convincing the public to put their faith in machines.

Other issues to be tackled include dealing with insurance industry with liability a major hurdle for car manufacturers.

The journalist travelled to the forum as guest of the International Transport Forum. 

The story Driverless cars: closer and safer than you think first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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