Driverless vehicles will inevitably become the norm on Australia’s roads because the safety and economic benefits will be too great to deny, a Senate inquiry has heard.

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An expert panel told the inquiry in Adelaide on Thursday that self-driving cars, buses and trucks will save lives, improve congestion and reduce freight costs.

“More than 90 per cent of crashes and consequent deaths and injuries on our roads can be attributed to human error,” road research group ARRB’s managing director Gerard Waldron said.

“What driverless vehicles are able to do is eliminate that human error.

Mr Waldron said road crashes cost Australia around $27 billion each year, on top of the lives lost.

“There’s an opportunity for Australia to have a massive national saving,” he said.

Road congestion, which costs around $30 billion per year in lost productivity, would also improve, the inquiry heard.

Mr Waldron said autonomous vehicles could “talk to” each other as well as to the infrastructure allowing them to drive closer together and use the road space more efficiently.

“You can get more vehicles moving at a more consistent pace without the interruptions that cause the backing up of traffic,” he said.

Mr Waldron said policies and infrastructure needs to be developed as early as possible so that Australia reaps the benefits of driverless vehicle technology.

But the inquiry heard driverless cars were still a long-term vision and were unlikely to be seen on Australia’s roads within the next five years.

But South Australia, which will lose thousands of automotive industry jobs when Holden closes its manufacturing operations in 2017, is hoping to speed up the adoption.

Adelaide will host the Southern Hemisphere’s first on-road test of driverless cars during an international conference in November.

Julie Holmes, manager of policy programs at the Department of Planning, Transport and Infrastructure, said this could create business opportunities in the state.

“Many car manufacturers and technology giants are investing millions of dollars globally in the race to develop the world’s first fully driverless vehicle,” she told the inquiry.

“Enticing companies such as Google, Volvo, Mercedes Benz, Audi, Tesla and many more is hoped for.

“There’s potential for these new technologies to be trialled and researched here in South Australia.”

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