Driverless cabs may be as little as two years away

Melbourne could have driverless cabs in two to seven years, according to fresh projections by Infrastructure Victoria.

Between 2020 and 2025, driverless taxi fleets, operating much like self-driving Ubers, could be cruising on specific roads within a controlled area in Melbourne, it's predicted.

If the forecast outlined in a new report by the expert body seems farfetched, consider plans by Google’s self-driving spin-off, Waymo, to introduce a driverless taxi service in Arizona by the end of this year.

“The technology is ready to be deployed in the US, and therefore we say if that’s already being deployed out there, then technically it could be developed over here,” said Michel Masson, chief executive of Infrastructure Victoria, which is tasked with advising the government on its electric and autonomous vehicle policies.

Driverless cars could bring massive safety and environmental benefits, delivering a $14.9 billion annual boost to the economy, the report found.

If all cars were driverless and emission-free, this could save 400 lives a year, and cut about a quarter of the state’s greenhouse emissions compared with 2015. That’s equal to the reduction needed to meet the state’s 2020 emissions target.

But the technology could also put a major burden on the energy network, the report warned.

If everyone drove an electric car by 2046, energy use could rise by 50 per cent, KPMG modelling found. The fleet would require the amount of energy produced by 30 wind farms and 81 solar farms, costing up to $8.8 billion.

Victoria's roads would also come under further strain if the cars are adopted primarily for private use.

There could be a rise in the number of car trips due to a phenomenon called "empty running", which is when a vehicle returns home at the end of a trip to park.

But this would all be offset by the reduction in crashes and improvements to traffic flow, Infrastructure Victoria found.

This was because the vehicles, which interact with each other digitally, could travel closer together and respond faster to traffic light changes, research project director Dr Allison Stewart said.

“The degree of improvement would be seen on freeways where vehicles travel significantly closer together at higher speeds," Dr Stewart said.

"There is also potential for improvements at intersections, where vehicles are able to communicate rather than having a lag when each person takes off.”

Before autonomous vehicles can be rolled out more widely, street signs and line markings would need to change, huge parking bays would need to be built, and mobile network coverage would need to be expanded to all unsealed roads, costing an estimated $1.7 billion.

The technology would transform the workforce, with 72,000 jobs in the transport and freight industry to be lost, the report found.

But 83,000 new jobs would emerge from new industries, Deloitte Access Economics modelling showed.

Driverless cars could lead to 18,000 road accidents being avoided by 2046 in Victoria, but the technology is not fail-safe.

People behind the wheel can intervene to respond to incidents, but they risk becoming less vigilant if they are watching films, or during long commutes.

The Insurance Australia Group has estimated 48 per cent of vehicles in Australia will be driverless by 2040.

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