A self-driving Ford Fusion hybrid car is test driven, Thursday, Aug. 18, 2016, in Pittsburgh.
A self-driving Ford Fusion hybrid car is test driven, Thursday, Aug. 18, 2016, in Pittsburgh. AP Photo - Jared Wickerham

Australians "not ready" for driverless cars

DESPITE ploughing billions globally into the new technology, the boss of Ford's local operation has admitted that Australians are "not ready" for driverless cars and it will be a struggle to persuade them to buy new vehicles.

Talking to news.com.au, Ford Australia and New Zealand CEO Graeme Whickman also cautioned Australia was "late to the party" when it came to paving the way for autonomous vehicles, otherwise known as driverless cars.

He also said troubling ethical questions surrounding vehicles without a human driver - such as who would be responsible if there was an accident - were yet to be resolved.

Earlier this month, the US global car giant announced a change in leadership replacing 30-year-company veteran Mark Fields with Jim Hackett who becomes global boss after previously overseeing the unit developing driverless cars.

"As somebody who is a true believer, who understands the economic and societal benefits of [autonomous vehicles] if anything [the appointment of Hackett] puts more emphasis on it," Mr Whickman told news.com.au during the Vivid Ideas festival in Sydney.

The company houses one of its three global research centres in Victoria. Last year it announced it would double its Australian research investment to $450m - much of that in autonomous car development at its Broadmeadows base close to Melbourne Airport.

The company ploughed $1 billion into Pittsburgh self-driving car tech start-up Argo AI to help it in its aim of having a fully functioning commercially available driverless vehicle available by 2021.

A self-driving Ford Fusion hybrid car is test driven, Thursday, Aug. 18, 2016, in Pittsburgh.
A self-driving Ford Fusion hybrid car is test driven, Thursday, Aug. 18, 2016, in Pittsburgh. AP Photo - Jared Wickerham

He said driverless cars could be one part of a "mobility revolution" that will see people locked out of vehicles, such as the elderly and disabled, climbing back into cars.

"I think it's a human right. There are more than four million Australians over the age of 65, who may have had their car keys taken off them, or the vision impaired, so all those people have the chance to participate and they can't right now."

But Mr Whickman said while Australia was busy developing the vehicles, red tape could see other countries having them on the roads long before we do.

"We have not disclosed where we think the first country will [to have autonomous vehicles] but I would like to see as stronger debate in Australia.

"At the moment government and industry are talking about what I would call fundamental items around emissions and fuel economy," he said

"I'd like to progress that quicker and get to discussions around societal benefits of autonomous vehicles. Otherwise, Australia might be a little bit late to the party and yet we have the same pain points as other markets do such as increasing urbanisation, an ageing population and accident rates.

"We have people working on driverless technology in Australia but it doesn't mean it will be implemented here until the regulatory framework starts to be in the right place."

Graeme Whickman (centre) at the Ford future mobility session at the Vivid Ideas Sydney Festival.
Graeme Whickman (centre) at the Ford future mobility session at the Vivid Ideas Sydney Festival. Supplied

There's a more fundamental issue though. Persuading people to get behind the wheel of a car with, well, no wheel.

Just this month, research conducted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found 48 per cent of people said they would never purchase a self-driving car and only 13 per cent would feel comfortable riding in one. Why the reticence? Because of a perceived loss of control and safety fears.

"The world is not necessarily ready for private ownership of [autonomous vehicles] as it stands now," admitted Mr Whickman who compared the restraint towards driverless cars to the doubt many might have once had to flying.

"It's an honest assessment of any new technology that takes the next tech leap forward.

"There will always be people who are early adopters and late adopters and our responsibility is to make people feel safe and understand there is a technological solution," he said.

To try and win over the wary, Mr Whickman said Ford's first mass produced driver free car was unlikely to be offered to the public. Rather, fleets will be rolled out as a ride sharing or Uber type operation.

One of Ford’s driverless development vehicles.
One of Ford’s driverless development vehicles. Supplied

"That's the best way to get quicker adoption and that will demonstrate that these vehicles are not something to be concerned about, but something to be excited about."

Then there's the thorny ethical problem of how a robot car will respond faced with a potentially deadly quandary.

Such a situation was summed up in the Scientific American last year.

"A self-driving car carrying a family of four spots a bouncing ball ahead. As the vehicle approaches a child runs out to retrieve the ball.

"Should the car risk its passengers' lives by swerving to the side - where the edge of the road meets a steep cliff? Or should the car continue on its path, ensuring its passengers' safety at the child's expense?"

What would Ford's driverless car do in similar ethical dilemmas? In fact, in any situation where injury or damage might occur in a an autonomous vehicle, who is liable?

"We don't have an answer to that question right now," said Mr Whickman.

"It's a pretty big debate to have and we want to earn the right to be a part of that debate but we won't necessarily be the lead voice because it's bigger than us."

He said the government and insurance industry as well as automakers and the public had to come around the table. But a solution had to be found because the technology was on the horizon.

"If you go back to previous technological revolutions, medical science, commercial aviation, these all involved ethical decisions."

However, Mr Whickman stressed that the accident rates in driverless cars tests showed them to have far fewer prangs and crunches than vehicles under human control.

Ford's push into driverless pits it not just against traditional rivals such as General Motor's Holden subsidiary and Toyota but previously pure play tech firms. Google's Waymo is one of the leaders in the autonomous vehicle space.

"The battleground does include Google, anyone who is in the mobility market is a potential competitor or partner."

But he was bullish about Ford's prospects. "We have the march in terms of the technical solution."