Driverless cars are likely to be affordable for the average-income person within a decade, thanks to engineering research at Curtin University.

The small number of driverless cars which currently exist cost hundreds of thousands of dollars each, putting them well out of reach for most drivers.

But the technology is destined for mainstream vehicles through a joint project between Curtin University, Daimler, which is the research arm of Mercedes Benz, and Ulm University in Germany.

Ba Tuong Vo, associate professor at Curtin’s department of electrical and computer engineering, is leading the team that is developing the on-board system that integrates the cameras, sensors, radars and lasers that act as the eyes and ears of the e-class test Mercedes.

He says Google’s recently developed autonomous cars are different because they rely on internet connection for mapping and driving, rather than their on board computers.

The other major difference was that Google’s version of the driverless car is not destined for the market.

“Google spends $150,000, in addition to the car, just for the sensors, so it is probably never going to put that car out for sale to the average person, ” Dr Vo says.

“The difference is that we are trying to use lower cost and quality sensors so that one day you can put it in your average Toyota Corolla and it will drive you along.

“We are at a point where sensing is more prevalent and computing is becoming much cheaper, so it is potentially affordable for the average person.”

The research is currently seeking to fuse data from the suite of sensors so it can accurately map the car’s surrounding environment, such as oncoming traffic and stationary objects.

The test car recently reached a milestone by successfully creating a virtual roadmap with this data and using it to drive autonomously in a straight line.

The next phase involves enabling the car to make its own decisions, such as when to stop, start, slow and turn.

The road to a driverless system

While relatively low-cost driverless cars are likely within a decade, driving them in Australia will have to wait until the government catches up with a supportive legal and operational framework.

Globally, only four states in the US have so far managed to introduce legislation for driverless cars, albeit in restricted circumstances.

“Legally, the first question is who takes responsibility for the driverless car if it crashes, ” Dr Vo says.

“Is it the person who owns the cars, is it the manufacturer, is it the computer, is it the person who made the sensor?”

The technology is already posing a range of interesting legal questions that engineers face when they design algorithms to avoid crashes.

Algorithms are set to get the vehicles to weigh up the safest option within a complex set of circumstances in the event a crash is inevitable.

It stands to reasons that if faced with the decision between crashing into a small car or a big car, the driverless vehicle will choose to veer into the bigger object because it will be better able to absorb a collision without serious harm.

This creates a legal grey area, where bigger cars like 4WDs effectively become moving targets for driverless technology.

The same dilemma exists where an automated car is faced with the possibility between crashing into a cyclist wearing a helmet and another who is not.

It is unlikely that designers will opt for random targets because it would defeat the main purpose of driverless technology.

And ignoring its own design research would be just as risky, with some claiming it would be tantamount to knowing a terrorist attack was going to happen but not acting on the information to save lives.

As well as the legal framework, Australian roads also need to prepare for the technology from an operational perspective.

Mike Erskine, a risk engineer and safety specialist from consulting firm GHD, says it would cost up to $40 billion over the next 20 years to adapt and support Australian roads for autonomous cars.

He says it includes the cost of mapping most of Australia’s 1.4 million kilometres of road network to a much higher level of accuracy than is currently available on consumer GPS or online maps.

All car manufacturers could use mapped data in their autonomous fleets.

While the current driverless test vehicles do not need to rely on comprehensive mapping, like Google’s cars, he says many car manufacturers are working with governments internationally to develop industry wide standards of mapping.

Mr Erskine says about 15,000 traffic light systems around the country would need to be retrofitted with technology allowing talk to the autonomous vehicles, and a similar number of mobile towers and the NBN would be needed to relay real-time and longer term information such as road closures, speed changes, software updates, map updates and traffic works.

Platooning and other benefits

Mr Erskine says the benefits of an autonomous transport system will eventually outweigh the costs.

He says that eventually, autonomous vehicles could prevent up to 90 per cent of crashes that are caused by human error.

This would save about 800 lives and 16,000 injuries each year and help the economy by about $15 billion.

Autonomous vehicle technology could directly benefit the aging population issue facing Australia by enabling safe and affordable mobility for older people.

In conjunction with strategic road network planning, an autonomous transport system would help reduce the bottlenecks and traffic jams that are currently occurring on our road networks.

With the vehicles’ ability to react significantly faster and more reliably than humans, they would eventually be able to safely travel at speed with shorter separation distances.

Mr Erskine says the practice of fast-moving, bumper-to-bumper traffic, known as platooning, could eventually be possible with autonomous vehicles and would increase fuel efficiency and road capacity substantially.

“If we start developing all of the key autonomous support systems now, we can effectively tackle some serious safety and societal problems that might otherwise occur in the future, ” he says.

© The West Australian

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