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Reasons to be cheerful. What driverless cars will do for us

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It was once fashionable to mock mobile phones. They were toys for yuppies, on the way out.

Not for a second did I take part in the ribbing. As early as the late 1980s I wanted one badly. As soon as I could, I paid a fortune to get one.

I feel the same way now about driverless cars.

In November they will come to Australia. Adelaide will host Australia's first trial in a closed off section of its southern expressway. If the automated Volvos can stop and break into traffic and and turn where they should, South Australia will consider making them legal. Other states will follow. And then driverless cars will free us up for living in the same way as mobile phones ensured we were always in touch.

Imagine studying, reading books, watching TV, sleeping or (legally) playing with your mobile phone on the way to work. Whichever way you look at it, the freed-up time will boost productivity. If it is used for working, it'll boost the productivity of the working and commuting hours. If it is used for leisure, it'll cut the number of hours given over to work or driving to it.

It'll also make previously unproductive people productive. Disabled Australians (especially the blind) and those above driving age will be able to command cars. People who live a long way from work will no longer have to endure hours of anguish. If their cars drive to cheap car parks after dropping them off it'll free up city real estate.

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If their cars are summoned by someone else (for a fee) while they are at work, the cars themselves will become more productive. They'll form a sort-of uber Uber. Taxis themselves will become far cheaper without drivers and because of that more plentiful. One estimate says most taxi drivers have just five, perhaps 10, years left. And truck drivers too. Rio Tinto is already using automated trucks in one of its mines.

Driverless cars will free up infrastructure in more profound ways. We are forever being told we need more and wider roads. But if automated vehicles couple up, bumper bar to bumper, peeling off only when needed, we will get an awful lot more out of the roads we've got. As automated vehicles come to dominate traffic we will need narrower lanes. Driverless cars will be more precise. Perhaps even too precise. There's talk that eventually sloppy human-driven cars could be banned from roads in the same way as pedestrians were banned from roads some years after the advent of the car.

And driverless cars will be safer. Human error is thought to account for 90 per cent of crashes. Alcohol, drugs and tiredness are responsible for 40 per cent of fatal crashes. In Britain the Eno Centre for Transportation says this means driverless cars could cut road deaths by 40 per cent, which in Australia would mean 400 lives saved a year. Even alert humans usually can't beat machines. It takes us a second or more to react. Computers do so instantly and control the car better (which is why modern braking systems take over from us the minute we hit the brakes).

Early reports from passengers sitting in the front seat of Google self-driving cars show frustration with how cautious (safe) its automatic driving style is. But that caution is often warranted. On one occasion a Google car refused to turn into a main road even though it looked as if it was clear. It had spotted a cyclist, obscured by a tree, but seen by its radar.

Automation raises awkward moral questions. At the moment we have no formal guide as to what to do when faced with a choice of hitting an old person or a young person. A driverless car would need that decision programmed in.

The Reserve Bank governor this week joined a chorus of experts saying Australia's living standard might grow more slowly from now on because productivity might grow more slowly. The easy productivity gains had been made. But there's another possibility. It's that productivity gains build on productivity gains, accelerating growth. Cars became possible only because of steam engines. Driverless cars have become possible only because of computers, vision processing technology, global positioning satellites and Google Maps.

At the moment we have no formal guide as to what to do when faced with a choice of hitting an old person or a young person. A driverless car would need that decision programed in.

Modern phones do things undreamt of when I got my first. Vodafone told me in all seriousness they had no plans to introduce SMS in Australia. I'm optimistic about what's in store, which means I'm optimistic about us.

Peter Martin is economics editor of The Age.

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