Fu­ture Watch

Are we the last gen­er­a­tion of hu­man driv­ers? asks COLIN CULLIS

South African Country Life - - In This Issue -

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.

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