What are Australian roads going to look like in 10 years? 20 years? Whatever they do look like, they're going to have more autonomous cars on them — whether that's a Tesla or a Holden or a Ford — and there will be more car-to-car communication than an occasional angry yell. We'll still be responsible for the actions of our vehicles, but we won't necessarily have our hands on the steering wheel or even own them.
We talked to Simon Wilson, the national Automotive Contact Centre manager at Allianz Global Assistance, about what Australian roads might look like a few years into a future where self-driving cars are the norm, and where Aussies are driven by robots rather than driving themselves.
Obviously this is still a long way off, and what we even think of as a car might change significantly before then, but it's an interesting thought exercise nonetheless. The future of driving is going to look very different to what we see today. And it'll probably be a lot safer.
Do you think self-driving cars will have a big impact on the way Australians use their cars? Will they still commute on public transport or will working while driving be more commonplace?
SW: I think self-driving cars are a significant and exciting development in the future of motoring.
Two developments that immediately come to mind are the potential safety improvements and reduction of congestion on our roads. By having these vehicles networked together to make the most of existing infrastructure could be the only way we can keep up with the growing needs of our population and the increasing pressure on our road systems.
In terms of productivity, ride sharing and logistics are also likely to see an improvement.
I predict that fewer Australians will own cars when this technology is perfected. The reason for this is the likelihood that car ownership will move towards the already popular pay per use model, but taking it to the next level.
This will enable Australians to get where they need to go with faster pick up times and as these vehicle numbers increase, there will be wider coverage and also the increased safety that will come with vehicles being networked together. In terms of public transport, it’s likely that routes will be more flexible and more in line with demand.
The rise of companies in the sharing economy, like Uber, Airbnb, Task Rabbit and the Lending Club is evidence people are looking to make use of the spare capacity in assets that aren’t fully utilised.
What is the effect that you see on accidents and insurance from self-driving cars? If humans are taken out of the equation, how do you apportion blame in a robot-on-robot accident?
SW: This is one of the burning issues that regulators face before self-driving cars become a reality, and there is a long way to go.
Accidents are likely to reduce by a very high percentage as the technology is perfected, though there will then be a temptation to increase the speeds of vehicles once people and regulators begin to have faith in their operation. Think high-speed bullet trains – if we were able to safely ensure that the stopping distance of a vehicle was maintained in an automated way – how fast could you safely travel?
I think the secret will be in the way they interact. If we can ensure that these vehicles travel close to each other but at a safe distance, there will be all sorts of advantages – fuel economy due to the tunnelling effect, fitting more vehicles within existing infrastructure in a safe way. The potential time savings in avoiding traffic snarls is really exciting!
I think what will be really exciting for the insurance industry here is the information we will receive – knowing exactly how customers are using their cars and where and when they are travelling, we will be able to more accurately calculate their risk. This could potentially mean the customer will be able to pay more precisely for what they use, reducing waste in the transaction, and potentially making pricing cheaper in some circumstances.
Do you see any potential in the increased danger of semi-autonomous cars? I'm thinking back to the urban legend of the driver setting cruise control then going to sleep, thinking it would steer for him.
SW: Like any new technology, there is the potential for it to be misunderstood. A prime example from when I first joined the auto industry 11 years ago was the urban legend about ABS causing more accidents because people thought it would lessen stopping distance — my personal view is that the consumer has the responsibility of learning the technology fully before applying it.