The year is 2025. It’s 8 am on a Monday morning, Sandton City. You are relaxing with a coffee in your favourite spot before heading into the office for an 8.30 meeting. With a quick tap of a button on your smart phone, a sleek two-seater silver car pulls onto the shoulder of the road to pick you up. (If you can afford the price tag, the car belongs to you and has driven you to your coffee spot. If not, you are probably subscribed to an Uber-like app that sends one to your door in the morning and drops you off wherever you want to go). You cruise onto the designated lane where traffic is moving at a steady but free-flowing pace. Perhaps you peer over to the lane of old-fashioned driver-driven cars that are stacked bumper-to-bumper painstakingly crawling onto the highway…or perhaps you are too engrossed in your morning paper or e-reader to pay attention to the road. It doesn’t matter, because you are riding in a driverless car – the transportation of choice. This is the future that what the likes of Google, BMW and Volvo are promising us and it’s about to happen sooner rather than later.
Google and Uber announced a coalition that will work to petition legislators to get more driverless cars on the road. Autonomous vehicles are more prevalent than you might think. By the time Google announced that they had invented the technology that would enable us to drive without drivers, engineers for the search engine had already clocked a whopping 225,300 km on the road, without anyone knowing. Since that announcement in 2010, car companies have been scrambling with a mania equal to the 1960s space race and with good reason.
The impact is going to be tremendous. It will enable roads to carry more traffic and reduce the massive infrastructure costs of maintain repairing and roads. Car insurance will drop (or perhaps become a thing of the past), travel will be more efficient, public transportation will diminish, accidents will be reduced. But the main benefit that has been touted is safety – most accidents are caused by human error, and this eliminates the need for human interaction with vehicles. In South Africa, eliminating road accidents could save over 4,500 lives every year.
While Tesla saw its first fatality earlier this year when a driver was killed while using the self-drive option, the safety track record of autonomous vehicles’ first half-decade is still miles above that of the first vehicles ever built. Just like the first “horseless carriages” required time to perfect, and governments and industry bodies required time to develop road safety and vehicle safety laws, self-driving cars are in their infancy and will require time to become perfectly autonomous.
But there are also environmental benefits. In fact, the environmental benefit of introducing self-driving cars may be bigger than electric vehicles – particularly in a country like South Africa where we are dependent on “dirty” energy sources such as coal. This is because a self-driving car eliminates the need to park…and along with it, the need for parking lots. The presence of these flat, dark surfaces can raise the temperate of urban areas by up to a full degree Celsius (known as the Urban Island effect). Removing massive parking lots from malls and office blocks leaves space for housing, parks and greenery. And let’s face it – research in densely populated cities such as New York has shown that 45% of cars on the road are merely looking for parking.
Compare this to electric cars. Plugging an electric vehicle into your home is the equivalent of adding three houses’ to the grid, and if a home installs a faster charger, one car –which has to be charged daily – will draw 16,800 watts of electricity, compared to the average home that uses about 3000 watts on average. For countries like South Africa, that not only has a constrained electricity supply but uses “dirty” energy sources like coal to produce that electricity, electric vehicles are simply not sustainable, environmentally or physically.
Self-driving cars will also stop cities from their ever-expanding outward sprawl and subsequent pressure to keep chewing up arable land, because travel will be more efficient and commuting easier as traffic is reduced. This is because these vehicles are able to follow each other very closely and precisely, and can sync up with Google Maps to control the flow of traffic. America’s transport department believes that putting self-driving cars on the road will allow for five times the volume of traffic to pass through the roads every day. In theory, commuters will be able to live further from home, which could see outlying towns boom.
Challenges would include legislation – particularly in light of the recent unfortunate fatality involving a self-driving car. Lawmakers do not yet know what to make of cars that drive without any human intervention. Secondly, we know that there are still flaws in the technology, as was the case with the accident I have just mentioned, whereby the car’s cameras failed to distinguish the white side of a turning tractor-trailer from a brightly lit sky and did not brake appropriately. Varying global weather conditions will play a role. We also have to consider the impact of blending driverless and driver-led cars together – the first ever recorded accident by a driverless car was caused by another vehicle (and human error). Creating a car that can identify potential hazards – including potholes, dogs running into the road, a child chasing a ball, a loosened load on the back of a truck – is going to take time to master.
The other challenge is that self-driving cars lack one crucial element – the sheer pleasure of driving. Many of us (myself included) love cars and love driving – a piece of tech that does the work for you can’t compare to the open road.