The NRMA is pushing for driverless car trials in Australia

Google’s driverless car. Photo: Justin Sullivan/ Getty Images.

NRMA‘s new chief executive, Rohan Lund, has called on the NSW and ACT governments to start trials of driverless cars and use “smart” technology on highways to reduce congestion, just as the motoring group tests car-sharing in its Thrifty rental business for the first time.

Mr Lund, who joined the NRMA in January from Foxtel, replacing Tony Stuart, said he was considering making acquisitions to broaden the motoring group’s business away from breakdown assistance and car repairs into new services that would make it easier for motorists to park and get around.

“Members are worried about congestion,” he said. “We want people to spend less time in traffic … but it’s not just more bitumen that’s going to solve the issues.”

A spate of deals this year between multinational companies and ride-sharing groups underscore the shift away from car ownership in big cities, Mr Lund said.

“This space is hot,” he said. “Mobility is where the big plays are happening.”

Apple is investing $US1 billion in Chinese car hail service Didi Chuxing; Volkswagen is putting $US300 million into Israeli ride share start-up Gett; General Motors has dropped $US500 million in US ride sharing group Lyft; and Toyota has struck an alliance with Uber.

Mr Lund is also evaluating a move into car-sharing – which would put it in competition with existing operations like GoGet and Flexicar (owned by Hertz) – running trials with vehicles from the group’s Thrifty rental business, which owns 27,000 cars.

Car-sharing trials

Car-sharing trials have already started in Melbourne and more are planned for Sydney and Newcastle.

“In a world where not everyone wants to own a car, or a second car for that matter, we can offer cars as a service at scale,” Mr Lund said. “That may take the form of supplying a fleet for car hire, car sharing or even to Uber drivers.”

To create a more business-focused executive team, Mr Lund has brought in people with experience in customer-oriented businesses.

Woolworths’ general manager for corporate finance Michael Gabriel, who was formerly Diageo’s finance director, is joining the motoring group as chief financial officer.

​Samantha Taranto, a former Qantas executive, has joined the NRMA to run its motoring business, and Cormac Hodgkinson, a former Vodafone executive, is the group’s new chief technology officer.

Lisbeth Rees, who has been human resources director for Chubb Insurance’s Asia Pacific business, is joining the group in late June as head of people and culture.

The new hires would help the NRMA become more competitive and more innovative, Mr Lund said.

“I want a commercial mentality in the business and leaders who are obsessed about the customer.”

The NRMA, which made a $63 million net profit in 2014-15, is releasing a new report, Smart Transport Future, on Friday to urge the NSW and ACT governments to start testing driverless cars in Sydney, Newcastle and Canberra.

Beyond science fiction

“Autonomous vehicles are no longer a fantastical element associated with science fiction movies,” the report says.

The NRMA wants governments to consider incentives that would encourage vehicle manufacturers and IT companies like Google to run driverless car trials as well as removing legal and regulatory hurdles that might prevent the emergence of driverless cars in Australia.

The report also calls on governments to ensure all new motorways use technology to monitor traffic flows, and to start embedding data sensors in road networks to allow driverless cars to communicate with one another.

“To solve the infrastructure and mobility challenges of the future, governments need to move beyond a business as usual approach,” the report says.

“Simply building new infrastructure and throwing money at ad hoc projects will not of themselves solve congestion, improve travel times or future proof our infrastructure and transport services.”

It suggests that governments consider allowing the private sector to use “peer to peer” smart phone parking applications (which allow drivers to find unused residential parking spaces) around key commuter hubs, arguing it is much cheaper than building new parking stations.

Encourage electric cars

It also recommends governments encourage people to use electrical cars by exempting them from registration fees, investing in charging stations and allowing the vehicles to use bus lanes.

Mr Lund resigned from his job as Foxtel chief operating officer in 2015 after a reshuffle of the pay television operator’s management structure.

He was previously group chief operating officer at Seven West Media and CEO of Yahoo!7.

This story first appeared in The Australian Financial Review. Read it here or follow the Financial Review on Facebook.

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