Last month we covered the completion of Australia’s first ‘electric highway’, a network of fast-charging stations for electric cars, between Perth and Margaret River. It went live in June and other state governments are planning to follow suit.

The first six of 12 planned fast-charging stations are operational on the route, allowing drivers of electric cars to recharge their vehicles to 80 per cent capacity in just 30 minutes.

The Queensland Government is planning to build a similar network, although its use of solar power to charge vehicles would be an Australian first. The Queensland proposal is for 1,600km of the Bruce Highway, beginning in Townsville, with the eventual aim of covering the length and breadth of the state.
Tesla Motors is joining in, with plans to build its own network of ‘Supercharger’ stations. It has five already in place at its Dealerships in Sydney and Melbourne, plus Goulburn, Wodonga and Euroa on the Hume Highway between the two capital cities. The Tesla stations can recharge vehicles in just 20 minutes and are fully carbon-offset. recently tested the network, successfully driving from Sydney to Melbourne using just the Superchargers to top up.

Tesla shows the way

Tesla, which launched in Australia in December 2014, is very happy with the local response, culminating in its Model S being named Carsales Car of the Year in November.

The Model S has some self-driving capabilities, being able to change lanes and respond to hazards autonomously.

Tesla has thrown down the gauntlet to traditional car-makers, one that Nissan recently took up when it unveiled its plans at the Tokyo Motor Show. Nissan claims its electric car, the Leaf, is the most popular electric car on the market, and announced plans to move towards driverless features with what it calls the Intelligent Driving System. It can already drive by itself in stop-start traffic, with technology to come that would give it similar capabilities to the Model S. From there, Nissan hopes to have fully autonomous cars on the road by 2020.

Enjoy driving while you can

Driverless cars might seem like a novelty now, but the time is rapidly approaching when they are the norm and human driving might one day even become illegal anywhere other than on designated racetracks.

Globally, 1.2 million people per year die in road accidents, over 1,000 of those in Australia. Proponents of self-driving vehicles point out that we would not accept this level of death from any other mode of transport. Can you imagine the outcry if 1,000 Australians died in aeroplane accidents every year? Or on trains?

Adelaide hosted the Southern Hemisphere’s first on-road trial of driverless vehicles in early November. It highlighted some bugs still to be ironed out but the Australian Driverless Vehicle Initiative, led by research group ARRB Group, is determined to prepare Australia for early adoption of the technology.

ARRB managing director, Gerard Waldron, says 90 per cent of car accidents are due to human error, highlighting the opportunity to save a million lives per year around the world by moving to self-driving vehicles.

Environmental benefits

As well as the human cost, cars of course are massive contributors to pollution. A move to autonomous vehicles would likely mean an end to private vehicle ownership and could cut the number of vehicles on the road by up to 90 per cent. Combined with a move to electric vehicles, it would almost eradicate the impact of one of the biggest contributors to climate change. (Currently, light vehicles contribute 10 per cent of Australia’s carbon emissions.)

Research conducted by the OECD’s International Transport Forum suggests that, combined with public transport and ride-sharing, moving to a service-based driverless vehicle system could cut the number of cars on the road by 65 per cent in peak times and up to 90 per cent overall.

Economic sense

Traffic congestion is expected to cost the Australian economy $53 billion a year by 2031. Cutting that by 65-90 per cent would provide a massive boost to productivity.

In addition, reducing road crashes by 90 per cent will save most of the $27 billion per year these cost the national economy.

Fully automated driverless cars could also increase the capacity of our roads, from 2,200 cars per lane per hour on highways to 12,000.

With the world’s largest and fourth-largest companies, Apple and Google, keen to establish market dominance, who would bet against a similar rapid transformation such as the iPhone has done for communications in the past decade?

Trucks are already there

Driverless trucks are already a commercial reality, with mining giant Rio Tinto using remote-controlled trucks to move iron ore at its mines in the Pilbara.

The company operates 69 driverless trucks at Yandicoogina, Nammuldi and Hope Downs 4. Able to run 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, each truck can save an estimated 500 work hours per year while also eliminating dangerous jobs and slashing costs.

Rival mining giants BHP Billiton and Fortescue are following suit, trialling driverless technology at their Pilbara sites.

It all makes for an intriguing next few years.

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