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New Zealand Launches Self-driving Pilot Program at Christchurch Airport

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【Summary】Last month, French-startup Navya, a leading developer of fully autonomous, SAE L5 vessels for public transportation, partnered with HMI Technologies (New Zealand’s Intelligent Transport System [ITS] provider) to launch a trial at the Christchurch International Airport.

Original Michael Cheng    Feb 01, 2017 6:24 AM PT
New Zealand Launches Self-driving Pilot Program at Christchurch Airport

The Asia-Pacific region, which includes Australia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea, has not been the focus of many driverless pilot programs. At the moment, several companies, including RDM Group, are still developing prototypes designed to take on the local environment and complex roadways.

The latest attempt to establish autonomous driving programs in the area comes from Christchurch, New Zealand. Last month, French-startup Navya, a leading developer of fully autonomous, SAE L5 vessels for public transportation, partnered with HMI Technologies (New Zealand's Intelligent Transport System [ITS] provider) to launch a trial at the Christchurch International Airport. The program focuses on the application of autonomous electric vehicles (AEVs) in mass-mobility sectors.

AEVs and Shuttling

The driverless pods that are deployed in the Christchurch-based airport resembles the fleet of autonomous shuttles that were issued in Las Vegas, Nevada. As a unit with L5 self-driving capabilities, the buses do not have a steering wheel or standard braking components. It can seat up to 15 people and will take on pre-programmed routes around the location. In addition to the developers involved, other research groups, such as specialists from the University of Canterbury, the Ministry of Transport and the New Zealand Transport Agency, are monitoring the trial to see how passengers react and interact with self-driving technology.

"We want to explore the possibility of deploying autonomous vehicles to assist people moving around our [airport] campus efficiently and sustainably, so we formed a partnership with HMI Technologies to consider how we might make this happen," explained Malcolm Johns, CEO of Christchurch Airport.

The pilot program at the airport is very different, compared to the driverless demonstration that Volvo launched in Tauranga during the 2016 New Zealand Traffic Institute conference. During the trial, the European automaker set a semi-autonomous vehicle loose on a nine-mile stretch of public road. The prototype was equipped with SAE L2 features (partial automation), which offered the same level of autonomy seen in other trials around busy cities. Only closed testing sites make use of fully autonomous, driverless pods – for now. This includes a fleet of modified Nissan Leafs that were caught towing vehicles without a driver around at an Oppama assembly plant in Japan.

Ready for Adoption

Are Asia-Pacific residents ready for self-driving cars? According to a 2016 survey conducted by Intel and Intuit, the answer is yes. The results of the report revealed that over 51 percent of respondents would consider purchasing a driverless unit. With 80 percent interested in the technology, Taiwan-based individuals displayed persistent willingness to own autonomous vehicles. On the other end of the spectrum, only 24 percent of Australian residents are contemplating on adopting driverless transportation options.

The survey suggests the most daunting barriers surrounding the adoption of autonomous vehicles are safety (79 percent) and failure to cope with unforeseen, new environments (76 percent).

"Consumers in Asia-Pacific express strong interest in self-driving cars, mirroring growing curiosity about the technology around the world. But potential buyers in the region have safety concerns that could hold back widespread adoption," said Jeremy Kressmann from eMarketer. 

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