Opinion: Driverless Dreams

Opinion: Driverless Dreams

As autonomous cars gain traction, I find myself ambivalent towards a driverless future. For starters, it would mean that I would have to find another job. Video killed the radio star and the motoring hack would be rendered unemployed by the driverless car.

On the other hand, a world in which cars double up as our personal butlers does seem enticing. It could mean extra time for a nap on the way to work in the morning, a better opportunity to catch up on the news. Or whatever else you would rather do, instead of navigating the stop-go-stop-go torture of traffic. One also cannot deny the possible safety ramifications of autonomous driving. Let’s face it: the cause of most accidents is the organic slab of meat behind the wheel. With computers at the helm, calculating, assessing and doing their thing on a millisecond by millisecond basis, there would be less room for error. We could sit, wonderfully distracted in the driver’s seat, while our digital chauffeurs safely cart us around.

But wait, we should also have the choice to take the reins when we please. An option such as this would ensure the livelihood of many a motoring reporter, in addition to pandering to the thrill you and I derive from driving. Development of autonomous mobility appears to be moving at a rapid rate, it is only a matter of time before the technology becomes ubiquitous. We already see glimmers of the future in existing models. The Mercedes-Benz S- Class, for example, can be specified with its intelligent drive package, which virtually allows the vehicle to pilot itself in slow-moving traffic. Volvo pioneered autonomous braking, a feature that has filtered through to a large number of cars today. Blind spot assistants, lane keep nannies and systems that tell us when to take a rest they are all pretty commonplace in 2015. And they are slowly coaching us for that day when we will relinquish our commandeering duties.

Manufacturers have proved that they are able to create autonomous cars with long distance capabilities. Last year, for example, Audi successfully completed 885km of autonomous driving in an A7 trial car named Jack. The prototype drove itself at speeds of 110km/h, and initiated lane changes and overtaking manoeuvres independently. Of course, for all the excitement and promise these autonomous wonders present, there is a downside we cannot overlook. Like humans, technology is imperfect. And it has been known to fail. Take Google, for instance. One of its driverless trial cars was involved in an accident recently, bringing the total to 13 incidents over six years of tests. Nine of those vehicles were victims of rear-end impact collisions, in fairness.

And by now you would have probably seen several videos documenting what happens when systems such as automatic braking fail to work as they should. Yes, such mishaps do not bode well for the prospect of driverless cars. Then there is the legal aspect. With self-driving cars close to joining the mainstream market in the US, lawmakers are scurrying to review the entire framework on motoring. They are facing a balancing act: regulating driverless cars in a way that does not stifle innovation, but also ensuring that the technology is safe. Hacking is another threat. The array of complex systems and sensors employed in driverless cars leave them vulnerable to hacker strikes, according to recent tests by US security firms.

And while we are on the subject of cyber crime, we ought to consider another sinister side to these artificially intelligent machines. Now, this would depend on your gullibility when it comes to sci-fi films. But we cannot rule out the notion of our digital chauffeurs going off the rails one day. It did happen in the 2004 film I, Robot, after all. Incidentally, the protagonist, played by Will Smith, drove an Audi . . .

-Brenwin Naidu