Meet the experts investigating NZ’s transport future

Expert interview: Transport researcher Associate Professor Samuel Charlton of the University of Waikato on our readiness for connected and autonomous vehicles.

April 24 2017. Investigating New Zealand’s transport future is the vital work for members of a cutting-edge research team at University of Waikato.

Look through the doors of a lab at University of Waikato and you see a real car, parked up in a dark room and facing large projection screens. This the driving simulator of the Transport Research Group and it is used to test out ideas that lead to safer and smarter use of our roads.

Computer cables snake out from under the car. The rear vision mirrors are replaced with video screens and cameras inside record the driver’s activity. Researchers sit in a control room next door, selecting simulations to run, and speaking instructions through a microphone.

When tests are underway, people sit in the car and drive through simulated New Zealand roads.

Associate Professor Samuel Charlton, Chair of Psychology and member of the Transport Research Group, says the lab allows researchers to study transport in ways that wouldn’t be safe in real traffic.

“We have a state of the art driving simulator. We can try things out that have never been tried before: new road markings, new signs, new ways of interacting with in-car devices. And we can do that safely.”

The simulator screens both real video and animations of New Zealand roads. The team can code in virtual road features for testing.

“Things like wire rope barriers and rumble strips – improvements that people now take for granted – were tried out in this room first, so we could see how drivers would react,” says Samuel.

Helping New Zealand look forward on transport

The driving simulator with its car and computer screens is one of the main research tools of University of Waikato’s Transport Research Group (TRG).

“The Transport Research Group does research on how to make transport safer, mainly focused on car drivers and driver behaviour,” says Professor Nicola Starkey.

She says team members have different backgrounds – including psychology, law, computer science and engineering. They work together because all these fields of knowledge contribute to the future of transport at a time of rapid technological change. Autonomous vehicles and connected vehicles (which send and receive data over the internet) are a reality now, with prototypes being tested on streets worldwide.

“Legal researchers are going to be important, with these vehicles raising questions such as can you travel in an autonomous vehicle when you are over the legal drinking limit?” says Nicola.

“Computing and mathematical sciences are needed to investigate the cybersecurity of connected vehicles. The possibilities of outside people hacking into a vehicle are enormous.”