Is it time to bite the bullet and embrace self driving cars?

By Brayden Towns

I recently overheard two businessmen complaining about their constant travel between Launceston and Hobart and how all their woes would all be put to ease if we were just to add a high speed train between the two cities. A common gripe.

Anyone who has lived in the state for any length of time will be familiar with this magical solution. Build a bullet train and then you could commute to work.

But on the drive between the two cities myself only days later, and as I sat caught up at my second set of road work traffic lights, I too begun to contemplate the impact that high speed transport could have on the state. It was at this moment that I saw, two cars in front of me, a Tesla Model S; not only one of the most recognisable fully electric cars, but also one of the first consumer facing cars to come equipped with a self-driving mode they call ‘auto-pilot’.

It got me thinking. Could the inevitable oncoming technology of autonomous vehicles render the mystical bullet train obsolete? And beyond this, what could the adoption of such a technology as a state look like in some of our key problem areas like our ageing population, environmental sustainability, the Hobart housing crisis, and the unending fascination Launcestonians seem to have with there not being enough car parks.

But first the highway.

Commercial bullet trains move at around 320k/ph, whereas autonomous vehicles can theoretically drive safely at approximately 190k/ph when in an ‘autonomous only’ road infrastructure. This autonomous only road infrastructure is the idea of two researchers at the University of California who devised the idea in response to the exorbitant cost of a proposed high speed rail project. While theoretical, a hyperlane is a side lane off of the regular highway that only self driving cars can use. Due to the lack of human error involved, they are able to communicate with one another and safely operate at super high speeds with exceptional reliability and accuracy. The biggest thing? The proposal was projected to save $105M per kilometre of implementation. A lot cheaper and a bit slower.

However, the other point to consider here is that self-driving cars are coming to our roads whether we like it or not. In an increasingly automated world and in a state with such a high number of road fatalities, self-driving vehicles could start to be an answer to long, monotonous and sleep inducing highway driving. People would be freed up to work, sleep, talk, catch up on Netflix and more while being driven between locations. The ability to start your work day while still in transit reduces the time pressures of living outside city centres and encourages more diverse and financially sustainable housing options for white collar employees.

Beyond this, the emergence of self-driving vehicles will likely see the reduction of car-ownership in general, with people subscribing to services where cars just turn up and take you places as you need. Those who own cars will be able send them off to work for them while they are at the office, replacing not only the cost of parking with an income but also reducing the need for parking in the first place. With less need for car parks, the cities can be reimagined as pedestrian focussed economic hubs, encouraging more foot traffic and stimulating the local economies.

Tasmania’s ageing population won’t be left out either, with cheaper and more accessible transport, the elderly will have greater freedom and access to the cities they inhabit. With less incentive to drive we could also see a substantial reduction in road accidents, of which upwards of 100,000 per year in Australia are caused by people with early dementia alone.

The last factor to consider is that the majority of self-driving vehicles are partly or completely electric. As we continue to progress toward sustainable energy, this reduction in greenhouse gas emissions combined with the reduced footprint of fewer cars needed on roads in total, would align well with the eco-friendly sentiment Tasmania is known for. Heck, an eco-focussed major infrastructure project might just be the thing we need to get everyone unified on a single idea.

The hyperlane may be as stupid an idea as the bullet train. I can just imagine what an autonomous car would do if it attempted to follow the mess of orange bollards, yellow lines, and roadworks that have littered the Midland Highway for what feels like the majority of my life. However the more interesting fact, at least to me, is that autonomous vehicles seem to be coming whether we like it or not and, while completely and almost laughably oversimplified, some of the thoughts above lead me to think that if embraced correctly self-driving cars, and the infrastructure and legislation surrounding them in the mid-near future, could have very interesting and deep reaching effects on a small island like Tasmania.