People are lazy, there’s no avoiding that fact. Not everyone, but certainly not an insignificant number. Just the other day, I saw a youth talking to his phone, not on his phone, as if the task of tapping the actions on all 8-inches of his screen was just far too much effort for his now withered appendages. “Okay Google” this and “Siri feed my hamster” that, have we reached a point where we don’t really feel like doing anything anymore?
Ever since the automobile had been conceived, you can bet your bottom dollar that some fellow somewhere had fantasised over the thought of sitting in a car that drives itself. Attempts were made in the 1920’s but clearly they were all feeble because only 60 years later, in the 1980’s, did the first two examples of lazy motoring come to fruition. Carnegie Mellon University’s Navlab and ALV projects in 1984 and Bundeswher University Munich ad Mercedes-Benz’s EUREKA Prometheus Project (silly name, I know) were the first vehicles worthy of the “autonomous” name with Navlab looking like a van with a giant viewfinder on its forehead and the culmination of EUREKA Promethus, a W140 S-Class, having to make do with 3 seats and a NASA control station in the back…
Clearly, we have moved on from vans and three seats, but the question remains – what on earth for? It is well documented that the vast majority of air crashes can be attributed to human error. Remove the human element and, in theory, you have a near fool-proof recipe for safe travel. I say in theory of course, because there are many variables to be considered, such as those who actually want to drive, and those who choose to drive but ignore the rules of the road. Those are just two examples, but likely to be the ones on which the boffins and scientists focus the most.
Take, for instance, adaptive cruise control – easily the most commonplace form of vehicle automation available at the moment, yet throw a Joburg taxi into the mix or one of those noobs that overtakes on the left and then cuts in front of you, and the system has a bit of a wobbly and slams on the anchors, yet these are all occurrences which we are perfectly accustomed to on South African roads. Take it a step further where we now have semi-autonomous vehicles from Volvo, Mercedes-Benz and BMW and while they amaze me each and every time I sit at the helm, add a corner, an under taker, as opposed to an over taker, and a non-attentive driver into the equation and the system panics, and switches off. Of course I’d rather have it switching itself off than attempting to rectify a situation which it is unable to, but the whole situation is still not ideal.
There is, in fact, a Vehicle Automation Standardisation Body which, in essence, governs the use and capabilities of vehicle automation around the world. They have 6 levels, used to designate the degree of vehicle automation which, interestingly, is gauged by driver involvement as opposed to hardware and amounts of technology on board a vehicle. The levels are as follows:
0 No Driving Automation
1 Driver Assistance
2 Partial Driving Automation
3 Conditional Driving Automation
4 High Driving Automation
5 Full Driving Automation
As we stand, Tesla’s famed AutoPilot sits between SAE 2 and SAE 3, although by the end of 2017 Elon Musk is hoping that they will be allowed to implement SAE 5, but more on that later.
So, do we feel that the automotive industry is barking up the wrong proverbial tree? Well, no, I certainly don’t. Besides, even if we did, a large number of manufacturers are already quite far up that tree with Audi in particular just waiting for law and legislation to be passed, allowing the new A8 to drive itself without any human interaction whatsoever at speeds of up to 60 km/h aka SAE 3. It will, at that point, be the first production car to officially reach SAE 3 standards. Tesla AutoPilot essentially does drive “itself”, although it does require a loving tug at the wheel every now and then to remind the vehicle that you haven’t in fact jumped into the back seat to breastfeed your baby or indulge in some light carpentry. Rather cleverly, however, Tesla’s are fitted with “shadow mode” which essentially uses all of the autonomous “ready” hardware to gather information and data which can then be used to improve software before the SAE 5 vehicles are approved for road use.
To wrap it all up, then, I think that this topic needs to be approached from the angle of road safety. While the novelty of not having to drive your vehicle is great, the safety benefits and advantages far outweigh the “cool factor”. Something to take into consideration, especially when looking at vehicle automation in a South African context, is that our road users and infrastructure are not quite ready to support such advancements in vehicle technology. We face other socio-economic worries that are far more apposite in our climate than being able to crochet while on the way to work, but at least we know that the technology is there and it’s coming. We all know that cars will be able to drive themselves, but the real excitement should come from an adaption of those systems to suit our occasional road markings and haphazard drivers.
For us who also thoroughly enjoy driving, it should not be seen as a substitute but rather in addition to conventional “human being” driving, granted that the humans in question adhere to the rules of the road. That is a completely different box of frogs, however.
For now, all we can do is revel in the joys of the Nissan Leafs (Leaves?) and BMW i3s plugged into car-chargers in affluent areas!