NSW government to trial driverless vehicles, but will there be room for startups in the space?

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The New South Wales government is backing driverless vehicle technology with the announcement of a two-year trial of an automated shuttle bus at Sydney Olympic Park, however some academics believe Australia needs to do more to ensure driverless cars do not create market monopolies that exploit consumers.

The first trial of a driverless shuttle bus in NSW was announced last week by NSW Transport Minister Andrew Constance and Roads, Maritime and Freight Minister Melinda Pavey, according to SBS.

The shuttle was developed by HMI Technologies, with NRMA, Telstra, IAG and Sydney Olympic Park Authority also involved in the project. The NSW government said in a statement on Wednesday that members of the public will be able to use the shuttle once the first stage of the trial and safety checks are completed.

The trial will be focused on finding ways that driverless technology can be adopted in NSW and what legislation would then be needed to facilitate such integration.

“Today we drive our cars but the reality is, cars will soon drive us and while we are not there yet, we need to be prepared for this change and we need to stay ahead of the game,” Constance said in the same statement.

NSW legislators already have driverless cars in their sights, with the Transport Legislation Amendment (Automated Vehicle Trials and Innovation) Bill 2017 recently introduced into State Parliament, a bill which is aimed at allowing driverless vehicles to be trialled on NSW roads.

It’s part of a growing move by governments and companies to explore the use of driverless vehicles. In the US, Uber has already thrown its hat in the ring with the announcement the ride-sharing app is expanding with a fleet of driverless vehicles, while back home, Western Australia launched the RAC Intellibus last year — a self-driving shuttle that, unlike the shuttle making its way around Olympic Park, went on roads and drove through commuter traffic, according to StartupDaily.

However, according to John Stone, senior lecturer in transport planning from the University of Melbourne, the convenience of a driverless future may come at a cost.

Stone says the large tech giants, such as Google, have a commercially-motivated interest a driverless future. Rather than just promoting safety and convenience, Stone believes self-driven cars will be designed to free up the time consumers would usually spend driving so they can instead shop online, browse the web, and send emails.

“Google now has a captive market in those times — you can see how having all this data about where people are moving, where they are, [would be valuable],” Stone says, suggesting Google may even see this as a key opportunity to place geographically-targeted ads for nearby services to entice the now-captive consumer.

“There’s an old mantra: ‘We are the product’,” Stone says.

Stone’s sentiments are echoed by Michael Milford, a professor at Queensland University of Technology, who specialises in artificial intelligence.

“Even though most of the big companies won’t say it, one of the primary interests, apart from safety, is the amount of time we spend in cars,” Milford tells StartupSmart.

“It’s a huge commercial market if you can monetise it,” Milford says.

What does this mean for startups?

While advancements in technology often make way for a new wave of startups and industry disruptors to oust incumbent industries, Stone says the financial costs of developing driverless technology may push out startups looking to enter the space.

“The capital involved in making this [technology] happen means the big players are going to have to be centrally involved,” Stone says.

This year, Adelaide-based startup Cohda Wireless received a $2 million government grant to develop radar-sensors for driverless cars.  While Stone concedes “there’s going to be a place for small startups” in “developing some parts of that [technology] to sell to the bigger companies,” he notes the breadth of technology required, from sensors in the car, to road and transport variables and requirements, makes creating driverless technology primarily the realm of tech giants.

Milford similarly notes that while “a lot of the small players will develop core ingredient technology”, because of capital restraints “most of the impact [in the driverless car industry] is going to come from big players and big corporations.”

With the future of driverless cars seemingly in the hands of big corporations that are commercially-motivated, Stone says we are reaching a critical point where governments will need to play an important role in shaping legislation and collaborating with citizens to decide how driverless technology will shape the future of Australian transport.

“The distinction is whether we make collective decisions on how [driverless technology] is going to shape our cities, or whether we are going to let Google and others sell it to us as individuals, and to hell with the consequences,” Stone says.

“This is where governments are going to have to have an important role, and where citizens need to become really articulate,” he says. 

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