Driverless cars, like this one on the streets of Boston, are yet to be seriously tested in New Zealand. Photo: Getty Images

Transport is changing, and one expert believes New Zealand is uniquely placed to take advantage.

When asked by a group of politicians to speak broadly about the future of transport, Professor Travis Waller’s eyes light up.

Somewhat flustered at the broad brief, he warns those in the room he may get carried away. “My colleagues laugh at me a little bit, if you wind me up I won’t stop so feel free to interrupt me.”

Waller, an American academic from the University of New South Wales, is well-placed to comment.

The director of the university’s Research Centre for Integrated Transport Innovation, he has previously advised his home country’s government about planning for driverless vehicles.

He has a particular interest in developing transport networks for emerging technology and improving the mathematical models that underpin transport, rather than decisions simply being political.

This, of course, makes it slightly amusing that he is in New Zealand to talk to politicians.

Addressing a select committee inquiry into the future of mobility, Waller says the transport industry is no longer a slow-moving beast but one of innovation. Not that long ago there was zero private investment in transport; now the smartest people in the world are lining up to pour money in.

To capitalise on that, governments need to let go of the traditional slow and steady approach to one more akin of a start-up, not afraid to try new things and fail, he says.

“Transport has evolved from a monolithic ‘economies of scale’ sort of industry to an innovation one and as a result, the concept of a moon-shot is dead.”

Transport expert professor Travis Waller believes New Zealand is perfectly placed to test future transport developments. Photo: Shane Cowlishaw


His words pique the Transport and Industrial Relations committee’s interest.

Sue Moroney from Labour wants to know his thoughts on whether electric and autonomous vehicles will fix congestion, while National’s Jonathan Young is interested in how passenger’s behaviour would change along with technology.

The Green’s Julie Anne Genter has several questions, but they are interrupted after an argument breaks out between herself and National’s Maurice Williamson. Williamson is wondering if there’s any evidence that replacing a car lane for a bus lane, as has been proposed in his Pakuranga electorate, reduces congestion.

After words back and forth things die down, and Waller pipes up: “Sometimes you just step back and let em’ go.”

On the cusp of change

Speaking after his select committee appearance, Waller tells Newsroom the transport world is on the verge of a new revolution and New Zealand is well-placed to be at the forefront.

But there are dozens of tricky issues to work through with emerging technology, including the legal framework.

In an autonomous car, something goes wrong and you have to grab the wheel – does that mean you assume liability?

It has also been shown that if a real driver knows they are near an autonomous vehicle, they drive more aggressively because they believe the other vehicle will prevent any accidents.

“Transport has evolved from a monolithic ‘economies of scale’ sort of industry to an innovation one and as a result, the concept of a moon-shot is dead.”

Waller says a small country like New Zealand could be the perfect place to work those issues out.

“Something I’ve learned being here for the week, historically New Zealand was a testing ground for new technology and I think there remains a real benefit to re-seize that, because dealing with the legal liabilities, dealing with the different forms of government is much easier here than, say, America.

“In my mind, if there’s really a concerted effort to present a coordinated, ‘we want to be the test bed of the world’, it looks like you have the fundamental ingredients to do that,” he says.

Waller also believes reliability will be a key aspect in transport’s future. He says it has been shown that, if you improved a system, more people will use it – but it had to be tangible.

“If I told you I could save you two minutes on your trip, that’s not going to save your life. But if I could tell you ‘never again are you going to get stuck in traffic 20 minutes longer than you think you should’ that could be huge because we pay the expense of a lack of reliability every day – if there’s a five per cent chance I’m 20 minutes late to the airport I’m going to be 20 minutes earlier.

“Think of work, if your boss is a jerk and there’s a chance you’re going to get fired, every day you’re going to have to pad out that schedule.”

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