For just one-hour last Friday, New Zealand and Volvo were at the forefront of autonomous vehicle testing. Our Richard Bosselman went hands-free.

ALL UP it was just a 30km motorway run, equidistant there-and-back legs to a roundabout, at a time of day when traffic was relatively light: potentially the sort of thing you might allow a P-plater to attempt after a few lessons.

Yet, what might seem unchallenging with even unexperienced hands on the wheel does of course take a somewhat different turn when the car is configured to run with hardly any human touch.

All the same, New Zealand’s first decent demonstration of autonomous driving, conducted on November 18 as a special ingredient of a national traffic management conference in the city of Tauranga, went without hitch.

Quite potentially, some fellow road users that day might well have been totally oblivious that the Volvo XC90 running with them was making history as the first autonomous driving demonstration in everyday traffic undertaken by a car distributor here. (Here in Australia, for the same demonstration in Adelaide, an entire freeway had to be shut down… Ed)

An effort that took less than an hour to conduct was months in the making. It required a showroom stock car being outfitted with a special software patch, created at company headquarters in Gothenberg and delivered in person by a senior Volvo employee who’d travelled out from Sweden.

The programming that gave the T8 plug-in Hybrid edition super smart self-driving powers was only temporary; by the end of the day the car was back to its normal, primarily driver-reliant self.

As is usual for this kind of demo, even though the car was able to cope without its steering and pedals being touched, there was still a minder in the driver’s seat, ready to assume control should the unexpected occur.

That safeguard, however, is not mandated by New Zealand law. In fact, as our regulations stand, autonomous cars are able to have free reign on our roads.

It’s not because we’ve been so foresighted as to rewrite the statutes to allow them in. Quite the contrary. This allowance results from a loophole that results from old law not keeping up with the changing times.

Though let’s not be too harsh – it’s understandable why this oversight exists. The particular rules overseeing what can run on NZ roads and what cannot be were drawn up when autonomous driving was the stuff of Jules Verne.

One of the passengers in the Volvo was our Transport Minister, Simon Bridges. He’s a total tech head with a particular bent for getting the electric car scene powered up (though, sadly, that interest has not spurred him to offer the buy-in rebates and tax cut incentives that are shown to work so well overseas).

Bridges is also keen to see driver-less tech here; so keen, in fact, that on the strength of a brief ride in a Google car in Silicon Valley last year, he invited the tech giant to trial its wheeled egg here. Google politely said thanks, but no thanks.

The Volvo episode came about in typical Kiwi style. It started because a high-up organizing the New Zealand Traffic Institute (Trafinz) gathering needed a guest speaker. He thought of a guy he’d met at another gathering a couple of years back and gave him a call.

Anders Eugensson was apparently delighted to accept the offer, though he explained that, in the time since he and the Kiwi had met, he had changed his job. Back then, he was employed as a future strategist working with Government agencies on behalf of the Chinese-owned Swedish mob. Now he was more involved in another project, the development of driverless technology.

Ironically, as it transpired, Eugensson subsequently had to cry off attending the conference – another Volvo senior man, Henrik Jarlebratt, came along in his stead. But Anders made good on his promise to provide Kiwis with an insight into the future world his brand is steering toward.

Volvo is a good choice for insight: Jarlebratt says large scale autonomous driving trials are planned for England, China and Sweden next year.

“The pace of development in this field is evolving rapidly. In addition to the international trials, Volvo is also building a fleet of self-driving cars for Uber which will hit US roads next year,” he says.

The Swedes are well past running specially-fettled demo cars. They key to turning the clock forward by, Volvo believes, a mere four to five years, was contained on a simple USB stick that literally plugged into a car chosen from the Volvo NZ demonstrator fleet.

Okay, so they didn’t exactly dip into a bowl of keys while blindfolded. The brand had insisted the chosen vehicle had to be a 2017 version of the XC90, because it has the latest generation of the brand’s Pilot Assist driving aid that allow it to be semi-autonomous – though, in current showroom state, it will entertain hands-free operation on highways for a maximum of 30 seconds at the most.

Prior to demo day, Volvo NZ national manager Coby Duggan was uncertain about what exact powers were on that USB.

It transpires, now, the tech was operating at ‘level 2’ of the global standard which measures the degree of the vehicle’s autonomy.

Level two is still determined as Partial Automation; the car executes accelerating, braking, and steering, however the driver is required to interact once every while with the vehicle and intervene if necessary as they are ultimately responsible for how the vehicle operates.

“By 2021 we expect Volvo’s to be at level 4 or High Automation where the system will monitor the driving environment and will maintain control even if the driver does not intervene when advised by the vehicle,” Duggan told me on the day.

“The next stage of evolution from there is level 5 or Full Automation, by then the car has complete control under all road and environmental conditions and therefore relieves the driver of responsibility.”

Only Volvos on the latest SPA – Scalable Project Architecture – platform have this ability; that’s the XC, the S90 sedan and the V90 wagon. The sedan has also just started to show here (the wagon’s next year) but, really, the XC made a better choice because it has a high profile here as the most popular Volvo model with Kiwis.

The MY17 update is already a big advancement for Kiwis happy to let their car do some of the driving. Until it came, the XC90 only allowed self-navigation for around 20 seconds, and only when below 50kmh. The MY17 steps up to a 130kmh maximum and half a minute of self-drive operation – assuming it is on a roadscape that is recognizable to its array of sensors, with include cameras and radar. Really, that’s a motorway rather than a rural road.

Of course, the real trick here was that the Volvo ran in a ‘real world’ environment with other motorists who, presumably, had not necessarily been pre-warned they be sharing the road with a robo-car.

Eugensson had, through a communique, expressed confidence it would be plain sailing.

“Our research shows around nine in every ten crashes have a driver causation error component and the reality is, self-driving cars simply do not get distracted. We believe this technology will greatly reduce the number of collisions on New Zealand roads while also improving efficiency,” he says.

While Bridges and co are keen to present this country an ideal location for such demonstrations because of our world-leading regulatory environment, which the Minister says encourages trialing and demonstrations of new technology such as autonomous vehicles, while protecting the safety of all road users, it might be a while before we see anything like this again.

Still, for an hour at least, NZ was right up there.


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