Expert interview: Questioning the future of cars

April 6 2017.Engineer and transport researcher Bridget Burdett says we don’t have all the answers about the future of road vehicles. Change could be slow or fast.

Automated vehicles – such as driverless cars – are being invented and tested right now. Many people are making guesses about when they will become common.

Video: Transport Engineer Bridget Burdett talks about her career pathway.

Transport engineer Bridget Burdett says we don’t have all the answers. We don’t know if changes to our cars and trucks will be slow and certain or fast and unpredictable.

Fast or slow: two scenarios

Here are two scenarios Bridgett describes:

Slow and certain

Changes to new vehicles are always happening. Airbags became standard. Maps on the web now include live traffic conditions, as smart phones became common. Driver’s phones transmit anonymous location data.

“We have a relatively old fleet of vehicles in New Zealand. We still have cars on our roads from the 70s and 80s. It takes a long time to upgrade technologies in the fleet as a whole,” says Bridget.

Under this scenario, gradually more and more of our cars will have more automatic features such as speed control or computerised lane changing.

Fast and unpredictable

Driverless cars are already being tested. They could be for sale in the coming years. Fully automated cars could quickly become common place.

The result: people may no longer even have their own car. Instead, they request a robotic car via their phone when needed.

This sort of change is called ‘disruptive’ – it causes fast and dramatic changes in the transport industry.

“We don't know when or if this will happen because it requires a great leap to another future,” says Bridget.

Levels of automation

Bridget says when looking at these two scenarios, it helps to think about levels of automation in cars.

Level 0 No automation. Most vehicles today. The driver in complete control.

Level 1 Specific functions are automated, such as electronic stability control to prevent skidding.

Level 2 At least two automated functions work together. Such as lane keeping and adaptive cruise control.

Level 3 Limited self driving. The car can drive itself but the driver can take control sometimes.

Level 4 Full automation. The car always drives itself.

Source: Ministry of Transport

“Level 4 cars don’t even have a steering wheel. That's the big cartoon future where everyone is driven around, falling asleep or reading the newspaper because there’s no driver. We just don't know when that might come about yet,” says Bridget.