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Fast-moving Google "impressed" by SA's driverless car bill

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The team working on the Google X driverless car project has praised South Australia’s draft legislation to allow the new technology to be tested on the state’s roads, says the state’s Transport Minister.

Stephen Mullighan has been at the Google X testing grounds in San Francisco this week along with representatives from a range of governments from around the world, just a week after introducing legislation in the South Australian parliament.

He told InDaily from the US this morning that Google had been struggling with regulatory restrictions on its driverless vehicles, but the project team was impressed by the speed in which SA had introduced its legislation.

The SA bill, which Mullighan hopes to be debated in the coming weeks, will provide exemptions from road laws to allow trials on open roads. Companies will have to submit trial plans to SA authorities for approval before tests can go ahead.

Representatives from Israel and Sweden were keen to look at the SA legislation as a potential template for introducing their own laws, he said.

The Google team also saw advantages in the SA approach, particularly compared to jurisdictions such as California where they have to produce special prototypes of the driverless vehicle in order to comply with local regulation.

“They were pretty impressed with how quickly we were able to put together the bill and put it to the Parliament,” Mullighan said.

The minister, who first visited Google’s driverless car project early this year, also gained a first-hand insight into how far Google has come – and the timeframe for bringing the vehicles to market.

He was taken for a ride in a Google driverless car, sharing the vehicle with Australia’s Consul-General in San Francisco, Sally-Ann Watts.

The Google vehicle has no controls. Passenger are only able to instruct the car where to go, or hit a button which makes the vehicle pull over and stop.

Mullighan says the drive was impressive, with the car responding to being cut off by pedestrians, cyclists and other vehicles, with smooth precision.

“They have made a car which is basically capable of handling any environment,” he said.

“Very quickly you feel comfortable sitting in the car. How it responds to challenges and disruptions is impressive – it’s smooth; not panicky or jerky.

“It was incredibly impressive. The presentation was designed to give some assurance about how advanced the project was.”

The Google project team explained they had undertaken more than a million kilometres of on-road testing since the driverless car research began in 2009.

Project leader Chris Urmson also revealed that Google is close to bringing its cars to market.

When asked the inevitable question about the project’s future, Urmson flashed up a picture of his 12-year-old son Ethan.

He then declared that his goal was for Ethan, who will be able to drive at the age of 16, to never have a need for a driver’s licence.

“We took away that within four years it will be ready for ongoing use on public roads,” Mullighan said.

“That’s an aggressive timeframe.”

Google's Chris Urmson wants to remove the need for his 12-year-old son to get a driver's licence. EPA photo

Google’s Chris Urmson wants to remove the need for his 12-year-old son to get a driver’s licence. EPA photo

Google aren’t the only ones moving quickly. Tesla boss Elon Musk says his company’s cars will be fully autonomous in about three years.

This year, the State Government has made a big play to become Australia’s most driverless car-friendly jurisdiction.

It has attracted a test project involving Volvo vehicles in November this year, on a closed section of the Southern Expressway.

Mullighan hopes the new legislation will attract the big players in the sector to South Australia for more testing programs.

While Google isn’t making any promises, the minister says we are now on the technology giant’s radar.

“We are hoping the fact that South Australia has moved more quickly than other jurisdictions in Australia will give as a head start in the coming years,” he said. “Meaning, they will want to bring the technology to SA when they’re thinking about the Asia-Pacific.”

The State Government paid for Mullighan’s trip. He was representing the Premier Jay Weatherill who was unable to take up Google’s invitation to visit the project headquarters.

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