Driven - - Contents -

The in­ter­sec­tion dan­ger

Au­tomak­ers are rac­ing each other to de­velop the first pro­duc­tion-ready self­driv­ing car. With Audi be­ing the first to break both the au­ton­o­mous speed and dis­tance records back in 2014, and Ford pro­claim­ing it would strive to be the first to of­fer an au­ton­o­mous ve­hi­cle “to the masses”, it’s Mercedes-Benz that has so far stolen the show with its jaw-drop­ping S-Class range of In­tel­li­gent Drive ve­hi­cles.

While the first ad­vances have come in the form of adap­tive cruise con­trol, ac­tive lane keep­ing, and self-park­ing sys­tems, full au­ton­omy re­mains the holy grail, and ev­ery ma­jor au­tomaker and soft­ware de­vel­oper is now on a quest to take the first swig from that grail. But, of course, there are some chal­lenges along the way.


The re­cent tech and car shows have been full of spiels and self-praise about man­u­fac­tur­ers achiev­ing in­cre­men­tal lev­els of au­ton­omy, thus paving the way for the self-driv­ing cars, in­clud­ing driver­less taxis, in the fu­ture. While we shouldn’t down­play their achieve­ments in push­ing au­ton­o­mous driv­ing tech­nol­ogy for­ward, there is still a sig­nif­i­cant tech­no­log­i­cal gap between “now” and “the fu­ture”.

If any­thing, the re­cent spate of fa­tal ac­ci­dents in­volv­ing Tesla and Uber self-driv­ing cars proves that the nec­es­sary tech­nol­ogy for au­ton­o­mous ve­hi­cles to an­tic­i­pate and adapt to all pos­si­ble even­tu­al­i­ties is still some way off. A self-driv­ing car should be equipped with sen­sors that will iden­tify objects, es­pe­cially pedes­tri­ans, in the most chal­leng­ing con­di­tions imag­in­able. That in­cludes sit­u­a­tions in which hu­mans would typ­i­cally fail be­cause the very aim of au­ton­o­mous ve­hi­cle tech­nol­ogy is to be bet­ter than a hu­man driver. These sen­sors work per­fectly well in good weather and day­light, but they seem to have lim­i­ta­tions un­der con­di­tions that are even slightly out of the or­di­nary. Cam­eras aren’t as ef­fec­tive at night time, and LiDAR sys­tems “get frustrated” in heavy rain and mist. More chal­leng­ing though, these sys­tems should be able to make split­sec­ond de­ci­sions to an­tic­i­pate and re­spond to the er­ratic driv­ing of non-au­ton­o­mous ve­hi­cles, like taxis and learner driv­ers. These are chal­lenges that go be­yond just good sen­sors, and thus re­quire a form of ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence that does not yet ex­ist.

When a sec­ond’s dif­fer­ence can avoid a col­li­sion, get­ting the tech right truly is a mat­ter of life and death.


The self-driv­ing craze caught gov­ern­ments un­pre­pared when it hit. While many have since scram­bled to put laws into place to reg­u­late the de­vel­op­ment and test­ing of self­driv­ing cars, here in South Africa we re­main slightly be­hind the curve. Soon they will be scram­bling again to en­sure that ac­ci­dents won’t hap­pen and that rel­e­vant par­ties will be held li­able in the event of such ac­ci­dents.

To be fair, most of our laws and reg­u­la­tions are made in re­ac­tion to in­ci­dents. Very few have the fore­sight to act on what has yet to hap­pen. Tech­nol­ogy, how­ever, rarely waits for the law to catch up and, just like with drones or UAVs, law­mak­ers and au­thor­i­ties are be­ing chal­lenged to work faster be­fore tragedy strikes.


Here’s the thing: the self-driv­ing cars of the fu­ture won’t have driv­ers. Some might not even have any­one in­side ca­pa­ble of driv­ing at all, and more than likely they won’t even have a steer­ing wheel. Many car mak­ers paint a pic­ture of a fu­ture where a driver or pas­sen­ger can sit back and re­lax, maybe chat and play, with nary a worry. Of course, they paint the ideal fu­ture, not what we have at present. But between now and then, the big­gest threat to au­ton­o­mous cars will be hu­man driv­ers, sim­ply be­cause hu­mans are eas­ily dis­tracted and of­ten take cal­cu­lated risks, like speed­ing up to cross an am­ber light, or push in front of other cars in fast-mov­ing traf­fic. And then there are the un­cal­cu­lated risks, which some driv­ers seem to take ef­fort­lessly and con­tin­u­ously, with­out any re­gard for other driv­ers. These chal­lenges pale in com­par­i­son to the anx­i­ety of sit­ting in the back of an au­ton­o­mous car, stranded in a no man’s land of be­ing un­sure whether to trust in the au­to­ma­tion or to be in an even higher state of alert.


Safety is al­ways of ut­most con­cern, and part of that in­volves not just driv­ers but also the other hu­mans and liv­ing be­ings out­side the ve­hi­cle. Pedes­tri­ans, like hu­man driv­ers, are un­pre­dictable, and more so when dis­tracted or ine­bri­ated, and there­fore pose the big­gest chal­lenge for au­ton­o­mous ve­hi­cles. Throw into the mix stray an­i­mals, and you have a real chal­lenge on hand. Most de­vel­op­ers of au­ton­o­mous ve­hi­cle tech­nol­ogy agree that the au­ton­o­mous chal­lenge will not be solved be­fore the pedes­trian prob­lem is solved, and only when pedes­tri­ans can be guar­an­teed that they will be safer by an or­der of mag­ni­tude with au­ton­o­mous cars on our roads.


One thing’s for sure: The prom­ise of au­ton­omy is putting swag­ger back into the once-trou­bled car in­dus­try’s stride. De­spite a con­tin­ued threat from car shar­ing, ride­hail­ing and all-elec­tric cars, the legacy au­tomak­ers now have a uni­fied goal to work to­ward, and it’s some­thing they’re all con­vinced we want. Ac­cord­ing to Mercedes, their F 015 fully au­ton­o­mous con­cept will head for pro­duc­tion in less than 15 years, and ac­cord­ing to Tesla, Waymo and many oth­ers, we could have Level 5 au­ton­o­mous ve­hi­cles by 2025. Whether that’s ac­cu­rate is any­one’s guess, but we should soon at least see more au­ton­o­mous fea­tures trickle through up­com­ing mod­els in South Africa, and a boat­load of far-out con­cepts in the mean­time.

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