Unfasten your seatbelts: Driverless cars get the green light in NZ

Hold on to your handbags, terrible drivers: the Ministry of Transport has just released new guidelines aimed at encouraging international companies to trial their driverless vehicles and technology here.

The new guidelines outline rules and offer advice to organisations considering testing autonomous vehicles here and encourages companies to share their findings with the Ministry of Transport and NZ Transport Agency. The document is a significant step up from the Ministry's four year Intelligent Transport Systems Technology Action Plan 2014-2018.

Internationally, autonomous and semi-autonomous vehicles are already being tested in several countries by BMW, Ford and General Motors. Unlike other countries where testing is restricted to test areas however, New Zealand’s laws allow for on-road testing, making the country a very attractive option for both overseas manufacturers and local technology companies.

“The document has got a lot of very positive stuff in it,” says Cormac McBride, director of industry group Intelligent Transport Systems New Zealand (ITSNZ).

“The Ministry of Transport ran workshops with universities, members of the transport technology industry and government departments to work out what actions the government should take to encourage the development of autonomous vehicles”.

McBride says this could be a boon for New Zealand’s technology sector. 

“New Zealand has a very diverse climactic conditions and landscape making it an ideal place to test these vehicles. With trials in New Zealand we would expect to welcome many more innovators and investors in this sector.”

“The fact is these vehicles promise huge benefits in safety and convenience. In addition to advancing the tech itself, there are huge opportunities for tech companies.”


Image: Cormac McBride, director of industry group Intelligent Transport Systems New Zealand (ITSNZ)

Ahmed Hikmet, owner and co-founder of HMI Technologies, concurs.

“This is huge opportunity for New Zealand and for us,” he says. “As a technology company in New Zealand, we have a real opportunity here in making these cars talk to each other.”

Hikmet says that while New Zealand is unlikely to move into the manufacturing of the vehicles themselves, the opportunity for New Zealand is in the development of systems to support the infrastructure, data and connectivity issues that driverless technology requires.  

“We have an opportunity here to develop the tech to support the communication of these vehicles: vehicle to vehicle, infrastructure to vehicle, vehicle to infrastructure. The more information the better the experience. Data that allows you to avoid congestion for example, transmitting data between vehicles, traffic signals, the condition of the road. The great news is that the Ministry is very serious about making it happen.”

So what’s the timeframe for commercially available driverless cars hitting New Zealand roads?

“In 2010 I saw the first autonomous car, a Hyundai, driving itself around the block in Busan, South Korea,” says McBride. “Last year I was driven down the autobahn in a test car at 130 kilometers per hour in full autonomous mode. It depends on the manufacturers, so I can’t gaze into a crystal ball, but as far as the law is concerned, this can now happen here.”

There’s still much to do before driverless cars enter the mainstream however.

“It comes down to a combination of risk, ethics and the law," says McBride.

“You can program cars to drive according to all the rules, but the challenge is to deal with unpredictable human behaviour, where people are breaking the rules. That is a very complex problem.”

“It takes two years to learn to drive a car. If we learn to drive in autonomous cars, all of a sudden that driving skillset is not something we’re going to learn. That’s not a question that has been addressed yet.”

View the Ministry of Transport’s guidelines here.