Skippy has car makers on the hop

A HOP, SKIP AND JUMP: Kangaroos can be a driving hazard, jumping into traffic while they graze close to the roads edge.
A HOP, SKIP AND JUMP: Kangaroos can be a driving hazard, jumping into traffic while they graze close to the roads edge. Rob Griffith

LAST year, Heartbeat explored the possibility of automated heavy haulage for the Northern Territory, the so-called "robo-trucker".

Turned out the seemingly far-off world of sci-fi trucking was closer than we thought, even if Arnold Schwarzenegger was not exactly queuing up to solve Australia's driver shortage.

Driverless trucks and automated "dumpies" were already operating on mine sites across the North and West.

And the Australian Road Research Board predicted automated transport would be operational on Territory public roads and elsewhere in the country within ten years.

This week, automated passenger vehicles found their way into the news.

Unmarked, unsealed and poorly-maintained Northern and Centre roads will no doubt still present a design challenge for any driverless engineer.

But another uniquely Australian problem also stands in the way of drivers who fancy a legal snooze at the wheel between Alice Springs and Darwin, previously considered a life-threatening activity.

Enter the humble kangaroo, which this week hopped unwittingly into the international technology spotlight.

Anyone who has driven an Outback road might be forgiven for thinking kangaroos are on a suicide mission when it comes to sharing the highway.

Particularly at dawn or dusk, but also at other times of day or night, the bounding roo is a common sight, pacing the car, until, without so much as a "by your leave", they'll kamikaze into the headlights.

Driving out bush in the Snowy Mountains when I was 19 years old and hadn't been driving long, I made the mistake of honking one such roo, thinking it might encourage the handsome beast to scamper out of harm's way.

I was wrong: It leapt high into the air instead, landing on the bonnet of the Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Authority's Land Rover.

I've never done it again.

The point is, such reckless roos mostly end up as road kill.

More than 20,000 of them collided with vehicles on Australian roads last year alone, costing insurers and motorists a cool $75million.

Now Australia's national emblem poses a different threat, this time to the manufacturers of driverless vehicles.

And with 35 million kangaroos scattered across the country, the problem is not going away any time soon.

The problem is this: During the moments between leaping and landing, when a roo is in the air, the expensive animal detection equipment mounted on board an automated vehicle-there to ensure the safety of driver and family-is unable to see it.

That's because the car's detector uses the ground as a reference point.

When the kangaroo hops into the air, the detector becomes confused and can no longer tell the distance from the car to the kangaroo.

Meanwhile, if Skippy happens to have hopped "toward" the vehicle, by the time the sensors detect the roo again as it lands it may be much closer, and both parties may well be done for.

Volvo first tested their undeniably sophisticated equipment on moose in Sweden.

In my humble opinion, and given I've no experience as a motoring engineer, this was their first mistake.

If you've never been to Sweden, a moose is two metres tall and weighs about 800kg - admittedly, not a bad match for a big old roo.

But there is one important difference: Moose don't hop.

When researchers realised this, a specialist group of car techs was immediately dispatched to a testing ground near Canberra to solve the problem of kangaroos.

That was about 18 months ago.

With previous experience only in deer, elks, cattle, horses-and, of course, the aforementioned moose-the engineers had their work cut out.

To the uninitiated, the kangaroo is an animal designed by committee ("Hey, what if we make it hop?").

And with such hugely powerful hind legs, they are tricky, which means one should always expect the unexpected.

To be fair to the Volvo engineers, even Australian politicians have been known to fall prey to a kangaroo's trickery.

In an effort to promote driverless vehicles in Adelaide two years ago, SA Transport Minister Stephen Mullighan hopped into the passenger seat of one test vehicle for a brief photo opportunity.

But, at 40km/h and in front of an international audience, the car's brakes failed and the minister crashed into a stuffed roo perched for effect at the side of the test track.

Unsurprisingly, the story went ballistic on social media.

Recent efforts using radar and hi-speed cameras to bolster a driverless car's sensors so that it might actually identify any nearby animal as being, in fact, a kangaroo, rather than, say, a moose-which keeps its hooves firmly on Mother Earth-can only help.

Nevertheless, there's still the erratic behaviour to contend with.

Which is the deal breaker for me, I'm afraid.

Yes, the technology is whiz-bang, and the engineers incredibly clever.

But the problem of spotting a roo as it sails through the roadside void, and predicting exactly when it might nose-dive into the path of your vehicle hurtling along at 130km/hr, and all with time enough to spare for the on-board computer to hit the brakes having calculated just the right pressure so as not to fling you into the scrub, is a tough one.

Until it is solved-if it ever is-I'll keep my hands gripped firmly on the wheel.

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