Canberra is well placed to make history by becoming the first jurisdiction in the Asia-Pacific region to legalise self-driving cars, Canberra Business Chamber chairman Glenn Keys says.
Mr Keys told an autonomous vehicles forum organised by the NRMA and the CBC on Tuesday he would like to see "live trials" on Canberra roads before the end of 2016.
A trial demonstration of Volvo's driverless cars in South Australia in November had raised public awareness of the emerging technology, creating an opportunity for Canberra to take it to the next level.
"We've got suburbs that are already laid but with no houses," he said. "They've got intersections, lights and everything else. You just map them off and use them for a trial area.
"You look at, say, the GDE, which has three lanes for traffic. Between 10am and 2pm you are lucky to see more than one lane of traffic flowing. You make one lane the road, one lane a safety lane and one lane the trials lane. You are out doing trials on the open road and you've got trials going on inside suburban areas. It's fantastic."
Legal and practical considerations were simplified by the compact size of the jurisdiction and the presence of only one tier of government.
Mr Keys said he did not believe self-driving cars were an "either/or option" that could make the light rail scheme redundant before it came on line or kill off unautomated cars.
"It's going to take a long time [before every car has a driverless function]," he said. "Take the example of catalytic converters; it was 25 years before every car stopped using lead [in petrol]."
That said, the research showed the technology was coming and more and more convergent factors, including the ageing of the population, were driving demand.
"I look at my dad, he's 87, he's driven all his life. [Now] he doesn't like driving at night; he doesn't like driving in bad weather. This is a great opportunity for him to go out at night or when it's wet."
The ACT government was well represented at Tuesday's forum with staff from Territory and Municipal Services, Major Projects and Transport Planning, Roads ACT and the Justice and Community Safety Directorate all in attendance.
"Why Canberra? Because of the expertise here," Mr Keys said. "[We have] The University of Canberra, the ANU, Seeing Machines and SMEC [the engineering consultancy that has grown out of the former Snowy Mountains Engineering Corporation]," for example.
"It is a perfect storm for us to be the first to do this in Asia Pacific, that is unless we let somebody else beat us to it."
The new technology was not the end of driving as most people know it.
"There will still be people who want to drive," he said. "I like driving but there will be some times when I'd love not to drive and be able to read reports while I'm on my way to a meeting."
Transitional technologies, such as retrofitting vehicles that already have self-drive compatible systems, will have a role to play.
"There will be that conversion period where some cars may be retrofitted, there will be some that can't and there will be an increasing level of technology in new cars," he said.
"Holden has had self-parking cars for three years; Volvo's got one that can go on the motorway. It is an extension of the motor car as it is; just like like airconditioning and ABS and airbags and GPS all were. It is going to democratise driving far more than anything we have seen before."
Mr Keys noted firms like Uber were looking closely at the technology.
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