Decoding the quandary of autonomous cars

Decoding the quandary of autonomous cars
 

Any person remotely interested in vehicles will know of the strides in the pursuit of autonomous driving cars. I’ve read much on the topic; seen countless vlogs and have driven cars prepared with a modicum of this technology.

However, I’ve always had this nagging feeling that despite the cleverness of it all, relinquishing control of a car to a computer brain is in vain and, it’s high time someone stood up and said: “Chaps, it isn’t working and probably will not.” I have no scientific theory for this standpoint. It’s biological. It’s my fear threshold, and perhaps that of my fellow man too, which I believe will simply never take the terrifying prospects of cruising through the breathtaking Chapman’s Peak road, arms folded.

All that these intelligent engineers are trying to fabricate are deft steering responses possessed by humans with arms, limbs, eyes, ears, and anxiety, micro-managed by a brain. Seemingly nobody has alerted them to the fact that using diodes and sensors hasn’t even conquered the less tricky and risky business of guiding even the best of trained geldings travelling at less than 5km/h through a typical showjumping course.

I’m more struck by the fact that seemingly, they haven’t even come to the realisation of the consequences, should they nail it, that the world considers it morally reprehensible to allow a computer to choose to risk life, be it of its owner or that of any unfortunate souls who are on a collision course with said intelligent, self-driving car. They should read about the arguments on euthanasia for reference on the definition of a legislative headache.

Deep Blue:

Should they nail it, then, all of these geniuses should be granted licences to operate as brain surgeons at once, because that’s what they would have effectively become. There exists a record number of tragic accidents during numerous tests of self-driving cars. Some have crashed into other cars and other things and some have taken out living humans.

Interestingly, the PR narrative of late slants towards absolving the cars, with fault blamed squarely on external factors but not on failings of trying to gift cars with mental ability. But is this not the point? Without the natural co-ordination managed by an actual brain, self-driving cars aren’t ever going to be able to quickly decipher and react to any pending disasters as intuitively or intelligently. Cars aren’t Deep Blue, which, if things had to get pear-shaped, only had one Garry Kasparov to decapitate.

Granted, there are humans who shouldn’t even be allowed on the roads simply because they aren’t suitably wired to driving, but this is still a lesser gamble than to place the odds of life or death of individuals at the soldered probes of electronics. The industry has still not even concluded legal processes in the event of Car vs Car.

There have been small victories though. For instance, it’s possible to drive all the way down to KwaZulu-Natal with minimal foot involvement and momentarily lessening the grip on the steering wheel to allow a vehicle equipped with semi-autonomous driving to guide itself between the lanes. But even at this level the systems aren’t perfect. Most, if not all vehicles currently equipped with this tech drive like inebriated Uncles, weaving from side to side between lanes, scaring the bejesus out of you and other road users. Full autonomy is still way off, if at all attainable.

Redesign cities:

However, the global race is quietly crumbling.

Of late some important people from various car brands have begun to see the light. BMW’s South African top exec Ian Roberts is quoted admitting that fully autonomous cars may be realised but governments are likely to not allow them on roads, at least not in the current conditions.

I’m no expert in self-driving vehicle design but what I can easily crack is that to get the autonomous car dice rolling, the world would need to redesign cities, close off epic back roads like Makgoebaskloof and the Stelvio pass and build some form of rail- road type system because, truly, we cannot ever guarantee that a self-guided object on Earth will not deviate off course when there is an actual connection to terra firma, which would then thrust us back to the era of trams, which we’ve long unshackled ourselves from in the name of freedom.

If I currently struggle with assuring my own mother that I’m not going to up-turn the vehicle despite being in possession of numerous high-speed driving certificates accrued over a 15-year stint as a motoring journalist, will she take my advice when I say to her: “Trust the car, Mom?” – Phuti Mpyane