Are we the last generation of human drivers? asks COLIN CULLIS
With Colin Cullis
Your bags are packed, ahead of you is the open road and a two-hour drive to your country weekend break. South Africa’s scenic drives make true the saying that life is a journey and you should enjoy the ride.
Although, when you are facing an hour commute in bumper to bumper traffic, you might wonder what fool coined it.
You also might wonder why we need cars to drive themselves when, for the most part, we actively seek out a vehicle that we would enjoy driving. It is our castle on wheels, our cocoon of comfort when getting around. Our music on the radio, the temperature set to just how we like it and a pace to match our needs, a hustle to make a client meeting or a cruise on a weekend away.
While the long game may see the steering wheel disappear, it was not the intention. It began with better navigation. An earlier Future Watch looked at the development of GPS. It was aided by a more connected car, one that would turn your car into an internet hub.
Cameras in our mobile phones became dashcams to increase our car security and provide evidence should there be an accident. These improvements allowed luxury cars to build options to have them car parallel park themselves. The budget Opel Adam is able to parallel park once you engage it near a parking bay and some of the BMWs can be remotecontrolled in tight spots. As car safety, engine performance and aerodynamics plateaued, manufacturers looked for new reasons to make their models stand out. The path to autonomy had begun.
The trucking industry noted the changes for a different reason. Safety considerations limit how long and how often a driver can get behind the wheel. Ship and rail transport do the heavy lifting, but road transport is the quickest to respond to new growth and to move smaller cargo more easily. The challenge was to keep the trucks moving while not increasing the cost.
The argument for a vehicle that can transport cargo safely over long distances with no need to break except for refuelling is a strong one. Having trucks drive in convoy, called platooning, also reduces fuel costs. Both are options with trucks that can drive themselves.
Truck companies focused on building better trucks to sell to transport companies.
The profits flowed to the logistics companies, not the truck maker. As truck innovation also reached a peak, the option not only to manufacture but operate the fleets became more of an opportunity.
Truck makers like Daimler (Mercedes) already has some advanced models capable of autonomous operation. Volvo and Volkswagen have too. Not only are they looking at autonomous trucks, but they are also investing in electric trucks. There are companies you may not have heard of that may soon be common on the roads. Google has Waymo, Uber has Otto, Tesla has their own, and then there are others like Nikola, Embark and Einride. All are looking to get more trucks moving more cargo, safer and quicker with less cost.
It might seem like bad news for drivers although the plan is not to remove the driver but save them having to drive. Having a person on board allows them to deal with the unexpected, a flat tyre or an accident (the odds of a human driver or animal causing a collision remains), and having a person deal with the consequence is better than leaving an empty truck parked on the road.
By not driving, drivers can relax, sleep or work on other things. Shifts can be longer and less stressful. For short-haul distances, the trucks could be empty in time, useful as many businesses have a shortage of drivers, and won’t be putting anyone out of a job. For some options like refuse collection, the self-driving truck works with the refuse collectors, reducing the number of people needed to keep a city clean.
All the improvements in trucks can be applied to cars too. Look at the growth of a company like Uber, which plans to manage both the autonomous trucks that transport goods via their subsidiary Otto, the cargo supply, and movement from start to finish.
It has successfully moved more than five billion people in under a decade, and reckons it can do the same for trucking and the entire cargo logistics operation.
There have been many improvements and innovations tested and refined in the last few years so it might surprise you given how quickly they are likely to be implemented, but they are not overnight innovations. For self-parking, the feature was rolled out over five years ago for some models and the more expensive versions. Now you can get it in vehicles under R250 000. The cars are almost ready for full automation. The sensors, navigation, steering automation and autopilot are all in place. Add braking, and the magic can begin.
Mercedes-Benz celebrated the 30th anniversary of an ad showcasing safety when Chris White lost control and drove over a cliff
on Chapman’s Peak (search ‘Mercedes 30 years’ to watch it yourself). They took him back to the scene of his miraculous escape and asked him to drive the stretch again in the new S-Class. This time rather than concern himself with negotiating the corners, he took his hands off the wheel and let the car do it.
For driverless motoring to become a reality, the challenge is less the technological hurdles that still need to be cleared, than the legal and the surprising moral ones that still need addressing. Legally, there is the question of who was at fault should an autonomous car be involved in a collision, the driver or the manufacturer.
Accidents have been rare for the distance covered – two so far and no fatalities. In the first, a Tesla driver hit a truck crossing his path, when the camera did not detect the white truck side against the bright cloudy sky. Tesla cars can be used autonomously but do require drivers to remain ready to take over should they need to.
This is not easy. We either focus on driving, or we become distracted and typically are not able to respond in time. It may not be fair to expect a driver to take over in an emergency. There is another moral question about what a car should be programmed to do should a collision be inevitable.
A recent incident saw a pedestrian knocked over while a vehicle was in autonomous mode. If a car could avoid that but put the driver in harm’s way, should it? If it was not one pedestrian but a group of them, possibly children, should the car attempt to save the large group of people and sacrifice the single driver? You might argue that it should, but would you buy a car that might be programmed to kill you under those conditions? The old question – called ‘the trolley problem’ – has vexed us for some time. Now we need to decide what the answer will be.
The legal situation is complicated. Road deaths are significant everywhere, and the principal cause of accidents are drivers and pedestrians. If driverless cars can reduce that, should we look to ban drivers?
For those who don’t like driving or can’t afford a car, there are likely to be fleets of driverless cars waiting for you to book a ride. How they should be regulated and where they should go when not in use, remains unanswered. If an option exists for your car to drive itself, should cities ban you parking yours in the city centre and instead have it drive off to a central parking area on the outskirts? The same could apply to space around blocks of flats or offices. Your car drops you off and is then sent elsewhere.
There is a plus for having your car take or collect your children from school and when they are older get them safely to and from where they are going without you needing to drive them or book cabs. If fleets of cars or minibuses could run all day and night according to demand, might it resolve public transport pressure and solve rush-hour traffic as you happily carpool with a smart bus that picks you up and delivers you to your work.
Thankfully none of this moves so quickly that we don’t have time to consider and test the options. In some markets, it will move quickly while in others less so.
If you enjoy your drive to the country you need not worry about that being taken away. What you can look forward to is reading a piece like this, while your car guides you through the traffic on your morning commute.
ABOVE LEFT: It won’t only be cars and trucks, but buses and minibuses that will be autonomous, which will change when and how we catch a bus. Some short-track trains are now autonomous (like Singapore’s inter-terminal shuttle). The TOSA bus, similar to the one pictured, was used to transport attendees at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switserland earlier this year. ABOVE RIGHT: Autonomous vehicles scan their surroundings constantly, looking for potential obstructions, potential collision objects, road markings and speed regulations. There are five levels: level one offers assistance, level four is self-driving under certain conditions for the full trip, level five is full automation. Most will be level three and four for now.
ABOVE: Google’s Waymo company has logged more than eight million kilometres since 2009, more than three million of them last year. BELOW: While most driverless models still have a steering wheel, Waymo got rid of it altogether.