Huge problem with the next generation of electric cars: 'Not there yet'

They've been branded the way of the future, but driverless cars must first overcome two major hurdles before we're likely to see them in Australia.

A split image of two driverless cars, or 'robotaxis', in the US.
Driverless cars are becoming the new norm in certain parts of the United States, where self-driving 'robotaxis' are already in some states. Source: X

In "an ideal world", all vehicles on the road would be both electric and driverless, resulting in massively reduced rates of car ownership, fewer accidents and cleaner airways, one of the country's leading urban mobility experts said. But, there are two main obstacles we must first overcome before we get there.

Industry experts agree that electric vehicles are "the way of the future" and, though they present their own issues as technology continues to emerge and develop, our reliance on them is on track to increase in line with our appetite.

Driverless vehicles may seem like the natural next step when it comes to EVs, and while not yet legal in Australia, they've already been rolled out in other parts of the world, including in the US across multiple states, where they've been trialled as ride share cars or "robotaxis".

Professor of Future Urban Mobility at Swinburne University Hussein Dia told Yahoo News Australia that despite fears around self-driving cars, there's actually a lot we can gain from them. Apart from the obvious benefits to the environment, driverless vehicles could also prove transformative for the millions around the world living with disabilities.

A Cruise self-driving car, which is owned by General Motors Company.
A Cruise self-driving car, which is owned by General Motors Company, has already hit the road in the US. Source: Reuters

They stand to iron out all the little mistakes humans make on the road when distracted — which can often have catastrophic, deadly consequences — with some studies already suggesting they're "safer". But in order to advance to a stage where governments feel completely satisfied with their abilities, there's a lot more work to be done.

Pointing toward a new study that was recently released in the US, where researchers compared road crash databases in human driven vehicles and automated vehicles, they found that "in almost all cases, the automated vehicles were safer", Dia said.

"They did competitive analysis — meaning under similar circumstances, such as speed, etc. — how the two types of vehicles performed," he said. "And they found that the automated vehicles were safer except in two categories: First, at dusk and at dawn, in low-light settings, because their sensors are not accurate enough and they cannot differentiate shadows and lights properly.

Grocery deliveries via Google-owned Waymo's autonomous vehicles are already available in select parts of the US. Source: Waymo
Grocery deliveries via Google-owned Waymo's autonomous vehicles are already available in select parts of the US. Source: Waymo

"The other one is lane changing. There's a joke on the internet now that automated cars are only good for going in straight lines. It's not really that bad. But sometimes when they change lanes, it is a very complex manoeuvre. For us humans, it's very easy. But for them, it's not."

Dia said that in order for driverless cars to reach a point where they're fully functioning safely, and allowed on Australian roads, we'd likely first need "another AI breakthrough".

"It's amazing the sensors and the technologies on these vehicles at the moment, but as we saw in this study, they're not for all situations," he said, adding that the "ultimate dream we're chasing is something called level five autonomy", which is when a "vehicle can go anywhere, anytime and under all weather conditions."

"I would be the first one to advocate for driverless cars or level five tomorrow, because when they're ready, they're going to be very safe.

"To give some context, we lose around 1.2 million people to road crashes globally. If we put these numbers in a calculator divided by 365, that's around 3000 people dying every day around around the globe. To put that in perspective, this is like 15 aircraft, each with 200 people on board falling out of the sky and killing everyone.

"You know, this is fairly crazy. We don't accept this in air travel and we shouldn't on the roads either."

When these "level five" vehicles are ready, they have the potential to drastically reduce the death toll on our roads, Dia explained. He said "we're seeing already lots of developments in getting there", with driverless cars set to iron out all "the silly things human drivers do".

"They're not going to drink and drive, they're not going to text behind the wheel, they're not going to fall asleep behind the wheel," he said.

"Clearly, as I mentioned, we're not there yet. It might even take another 10 to 15 to 20 years. But even if they reduce crashes by 10, 20 or 30 per cent, that that would be a good thing."

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