First autonomous vehicle trial starts at Christchurch Airport next year

Christchurch International Airport and Australian company HMI Technologies will undertake New Zealand's first trial of a fully autonomous electric vehicle early next year.

Christchurch International Airport and Australian company HMI Technologies will undertake New Zealand's first trial of a fully autonomous electric vehicle early next year.

The trials of French-based Navya's Arma 15-person shuttle will largely be conducted on the airport campus. They will first happen on private roads without passengers and then gradually move to public roads and passengers once the safety case has been made and regulatory approvals received.

HMI Technologies, a provider of custom-built intelligent traffic solutions and products, has bought the electric shuttle for the trial.

It's expected to arrive in the country before Christmas and both parties will fund the two-year trial though they won't reveal the cost. Autonomous shuttles are said to be cheaper, safer, and more efficient than driver-manned public transport.

Christchurch Airport general manager corporate affairs Michael Singleton said the airport's interest centres on linking key areas around its campus.

"One of the first things we have to understand is how it performs within the environment and how it interacts with the infrastructure. We also want to know what other additional infrastructure may be needed if the trial proves successful," he said.

Navya's Arma travels at a top speed of 45 kilometres per hour, has no steering wheel, and the only infrastructure it requires is an inductive charging station.

It's under trial at a number of European sites, most notably at the 220ha  EDF power plant in Civaux in France where trips between offices can be up to 2.5km. EDF has estimated it will get as much as €3 million worth of extra productivity from its workforce through cutting transport waiting times.

University of Canterbury researchers and developers will help design and undertake the trial.

HIT Lab head Professor Rob Lindeman said the views of the New Zealand public will be incorporated into the overall rollout of the technology.

"These days, driverless shuttles are common at many international airports to move people between terminals and people don't seem to mind since the shuttles are on closed tracks," he said. "How will people accept them when they are on more open roads, such as moving people from the terminal to a satellite parking structure or moving them from the terminal to the CBD?"

He said including the public in each step of the trial will help raise acceptance and the success of this and similar projects around the country.

Wellington Airport is undertaking a feasibility study this year on using self-driving shuttles within airport grounds while Auckland International Airport said recently it had reviewed the technology and decided against trials at this stage.

Wellington Airport is considering Easymile's EZ10 shared driverless vehicle (SDVs) which operate autonomously without a steering wheel. The 12-seater shuttles are designed for last-minute travel including looped routes within confined areas such as airports and university campuses.

New Zealand's transport laws don't require a driver to be present for AVs to be used on the road although any trial requires an approved safety management plan. The NZ Transport Agency and the Ministry of Transport will work with the trial partners to manage safety risks.

Transport Minister Simon Bridges has been keen for New Zealand to be an early adopter of driverless cars and drones and earlier this year released guidelines for testing AV vehicles.

"Autonomous vehicles are an important part of the future of transport and offer potential safety, efficiency, and environmental benefits," he said today.


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