Two Volvo XC90 vehicles went for an autonomous drive on Adelaide's Southern Expressway on Saturday morning, as part of the Australian Driverless Vehicle Initiative (ADVI), coordinated by the national independent road research agency, ARRB Group.
In what ARRB Group has called an Australian first in autonomous car travel, ahead of their official release in Sweden in 2017, the two cars demonstrated automatic lane keeping, adaptive cruise control, and active queue assist.
The demonstration, according to ARRB Group, marks the first in a series of national research and field trials to identify and assess what needs to be done to make driverless cars appropriate in an Australian context, placing particular emphasis on human factors that are often encountered behind the wheel.
South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill was a passenger in one of the vehicles and said his experience during the ride was very "smooth". He said he felt safe the entire time, adding he was able to do his work on his lap and check his email on his iPhone.
"I could tell the technology has provided a complete controlled and safe environment so I didn't have any concerns at all," he said. "In fact, it's interesting how quickly you get used to the notion that the car is really just driving itself."
"At any time you can grab control of the car, so it's not as if something goes catastrophically wrong you can't get hold of the car and get back control again; there are lots of redundancies built into the technology to make sure it remains safe."
Weatherill said the critical issue when it comes to the future of driverless vehicles is safety.
"There are just so many people that are getting killed and maimed on our roads, if we can find a way of reducing that, that's obviously a great thing for our community," he said.
Another passenger of one of the cars was deputy police commissioner Linda Williams.
Weatherill said that whilst the police can speak for themselves, he believes the force can see the opportunities to remove driver error and reduce fatalities.
"If they could see a technology that's reducing the road toll, I'm sure they'd be urging a government to adopt it as soon as they can," Weatherill said.
"I think we're looking at the future, and I think the way people should look at this is an opportunity for South Australia to be a leader and create the jobs and opportunities of the future."
Weatherill said it is not likely that the use of driverless cars will be practical on every road, but said it would be a suitable fit for roads like the Southern Expressway.
"We are encouraging the development of a new technology which not only promises to improve safety and lower emissions, but also offers countless opportunities for the South Australian economy," he said. "This industry has the potential to revolutionise transport in Australia."
"It won't be for everybody and it won't be anything that's going to happen any time soon ... we want to be at the forefront of this paradigm shift towards an industry which is anticipated to be worth more than AU$90 billion globally by 2030."
Despite joking that being a passenger with no control over the vehicle is a common experience for him, Weatherill highlighted the productivity implications it could have for the average commuter.
"It is something I think will be more convenient, it will create a greater level of productivity as people will be able to do a bit of social admin on the way to work," Weatherill said. "It's going to be wonderful for the average commuter."
The trial was originally unveiled in July, ARRB Group saying at the time that the trials in South Australia will be the first of many trials nationally, with discussions underway with other Australian state governments.
"Driverless cars have a range of benefits that could significantly improve road safety and the quality of life of everyday Australians, add to the nation's economic competitiveness and help relieve rapidly growing congestion that is crippling our infrastructure and creating productivity deficits in our capital cities," ARRB Group managing director Gerard Waldron said at the time.
In September, researchers at Deakin University partnered with General Motors (GM) to focus on developing "innovative and competitive" solutions for the future of the automotive market.
Deakin said the centre would develop technology-driven automotive products and that the initial focus of the new centre will be to develop advanced constitutive and failure models, including calibration test procedures, before implementing the models into commercial software.
Earlier this year, Japanese car manufacturer Nissan said it will have road-ready autonomous cars by 2020. Hyandai also said it was pushing for commercial self-driving cars within the next five years, whilst Ford announced it was moving its autonomous driving technology research plans upward to a full-scale advanced engineering program.
Additionally, New Zealand's Transport Agency announced in August it was commissioning a study of the country's technical readiness for the deployment of automated vehicles, including the state of digital mapping and networks required to enable operation.
The operation will include both level 3 and 4 autonomous vehicles. Level 3 vehicles will enable the driver to take full control of the vehicle under certain traffic or environmental conditions, and to rely heavily on the vehicle to monitor for changes requiring transition back to driver control; whilst level 4 automation anticipates the driver will provide destination or navigation input, but the vehicle can be unoccupied.