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by Matt Campbell

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Sydney to Melbourne. It’s the trip by which all other trips are measured when it comes to a great Australian drive.

And just imagine when the day comes that you’ll be able to drive from Sydney to Melbourne without touching the accelerator, the brake pedal or the steering wheel as your car ferries you between the two biggest cities in the country – and all you have to do is go along for the ride.

It’s a future that may seem, well, futuristic, but the fact is it’s just a few years away.

With car companies offering autonomous technology that allows the car to think for itself, act for itself and react for itself (and for you), the way we get around is set to change dramatically in the next few years. And I can’t wait.

You might be thinking: “Hang on, doesn’t this go against what Matt said a while back?”

Yes, in my previous opinion piece I admitted my fear of autonomous cars taking our jobs, but a few hours behind the wheel, figuratively and literally twiddling my thumbs as the kilometres ticked by slowly, is enough to make anyone change their mind, at least a bit.

On a recent trip from Sydney to Albury, about 550 kilometres away and therefore about five hours and thirty minutes of driving – when you account for low speed zones and some traffic exiting town – it occurred to me just how much time I was wasting by sitting behind the wheel of a car and essentially only steering it. The cruise control system was on, the car would warn me if I was doing something wrong, and all I had to do was keep it in between the lines.

Some cars already have technology that will allow you to remove your hands from the steering wheel, meaning the car can essentially steer itself for short periods of time. I’ve experienced it first hand (or should that be first-hands-off?) in a Tesla, and it’s properly awesome: the car can steer for itself, even change lanes if you touch the indicator stalk – but as the driver, you’re still liable if things go wrong.

The next step in this move towards autonomy will see cars that can steer themselves entirely autonomously by monitoring the road, what other road users are doing, and also calling on intelligent mapping software to ensure that if you plug a destination into your car’s navigation system, it will get you there.

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And this is bloody exciting news, because I can’t tell you how many times I thought to myself on my six-ish hour long trip that I was just wasting time.

Of course a lot of the time savings will come down to legislation. It’ll depend what you’re allowed to do while you’re behind the wheel and when the car is in full autonomous mode. If, for example, you’re allowed to use your phone to check emails, play games or watch a movie, or perhaps read a book or the newspaper, it could change the way we think about driving – not just in Australia, but around the world.

Because, essentially, we won’t be driving – our cars will. There are reasons you might think it would be unsafe for someone who is in the driver’s seat of two tonnes of metal to be doing anything other than watching the road ahead of them, but I’ll ask you this: is it best to have an array of cameras and senses looking at the road ahead, or a driver who is frustrated and distracted because they just want to get where they’re going?

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Another question that is raised by this time-wasting is speed limits. We’ve been pretty vocal in the past about the fact Australians would be less fatigued if they could get from A to B a little bit quicker. Even simply looking at the maths makes it pretty clear that going just a touch faster on the freeway would have a profound effect on long-distance trips like the one I just did between Sydney and Albury.

Without stops, the time it should take is about five-and-a-half hours with a 110km/h speed limit. The time it could take with a higher speed limit – say 130km/h – is closer to four-and-a-quarter hours. They say fatigue is one of the biggest killers on Aussie roads… but, then again, they also say speed is.

Obviously if a car with autonomous technology could drive you from start to finish, maybe the time spent behind the wheel wouldn’t be quite as taxing, so speed limits might not need to change.

But, if autonomous cars are safer, surely there’s a case for speed limits to go up? I recall that piece I wrote early this year about autonomous cars being a vaccine against deaths on the road – they could well be.

One thing is for sure: Aussies who drive a lot will benefit when autonomous card technology makes it here in the next few years.

Tell us what you think

Will your commute change because of cars they can drive themselves? Or are you sceptical about the applications of autonomous technology in day-to-day driving? Let us know in the comments section below. 

MORE: News about autonomous cars




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