NZ an unlikely testing ground for autonomous vehicles

The inside of Rinspeed's concept car "Budii. Photo: Rinspeed

New Zealand should not get its hopes up about being a testing ground for autonomous cars, a leading car futurist believes.

Transport Minister Simon Bridges has talked up the possibility of New Zealand being used to test the technology, stating he wants to see driverless cars in use by the early-to-mid 2020s.

Last month another transport academic, Professor Travis Waller from the University of New South Wales, told Newsroom New Zealand was a “perfect petri dish” to fine-tune new technology.

But Frank Rinderknecht, the Swiss founder of auto think-tank Rinspeed, believes any serious testing being done in New Zealand is a pipe dream.

Founded in 1979, Rinspeed is behind several innovations that have become commonplace in vehicles including the turbocharger and steering-wheel controls.

Each year the company builds a concept car showcasing where technology could be in three-to-six years and takes it on tour around the world.

This weekend Rinderknecht is in Wellington for the Motor Trade Association’s “Car Show of the Century” and has brought “Budii”, his 2015 concept car, with him.

While here he will also meet with government officials interested in his view on what our transportation future could look like.

Asked about New Zealand’s hopes of being a testing ground for driverless cars, as it has been for other technology in the past, Rinderknecht is dubious.

"I’m in contact with Apple, Google, Mercedes, all those guys - and, for me, I couldn’t see the benefit.”

While New Zealand has excellent road markings and conditions, he says there is nothing he had noticed here that could not be replicated much closer to the headquarters of tech and car companies.

The Swiss Transport Minister had also asked him the same thing, wanting to begin testing new technology, but he had told her there was no need as Germany was already doing it next door.

“This I say without disparagement, and this is simply fact from the numbers, New Zealand is not going to be a driving market.”

So, what could the future look like?

While New Zealand may not be first in line, Rinderknecht says change is coming.

Despite his heavy association with the car industry, he describes himself as a “mobility specialist”.

He sees the future of transport streamlined, with technology providing simply the easiest way to get from A to B whether it’s in a car, plane, train, e-bike, or a combination of them all.

His concept cars may seem a little gimmicky – the Budii has a robotic arm that can switch the steering wheel between passengers and act as a table, while his latest, the “Oasis”, has a garden instead of a dashboard – but Rinderknecht believes change is accelerating extremely rapidly.

This may mean some traditional car companies get left behind, especially if his prediction that large logistics companies such as Amazon and Alibaba will enter and dominate the market.

He sees them far better placed than even Google and Apple to capitalise on new technology, given their knowledge of how to move an item from one place to another.

Essentially, Rinderknecht sees a time where people are treated little differently than that book you ordered online.

"What’s the difference in moving you around, or me, or a parcel? Sure, a package is a little different but it’s logistics.”

He would also not be surprised if, once autonomous vehicles become commonplace, transport becomes free.

This could mean watching ads after getting in a car, or before accessing Wi-Fi, if you wanted free travel, or paying for a premium ad-free experience.

One thing he doesn’t see in the near future is a flying car, so he has no problem in continuing to invest in roads.

“For you, your grandchildren, your future will still be on the asphalt.”