Be streetsmart, safer to have driverless cars

END OF THE ROAD: A BBC article suggests that high-speed chases from films like Fast & Furious 7 (above) will be a thing of the past with autonomous cars.

EVER since the car was invented, its most unreliable and mistake-prone part was and still is the driver.

It has taken more than 130 years for it to happen but soon that human element will be removed as the first generation of driverless cars comes off the production line.

Mercedes Benz served notice of that future at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas earlier this month when it announced that its new E-Class sedan had obtained a Nevada Autonomous Driver's Licence.

That set off a flurry of commentaries and predictions as to how such a momentous development would impact the world as we know it.

As Matthew Phenix wrote on, "autonomous vehicles will revise our thinking about everything from the insurance industry to law enforcement practices" and, of course, us end-users.

It's not just Mercedes Benz that's been tinkering with autonomous vehicles. Just about every major automaker is working on self-driving technologies.

But it was Google's Self-Driving Car Project, started secretly in 2009, and its test cars on the roads of Nevada (which is why the state was the first to issue such licences) in 2012 that gave this sector a huge boost.

As Chris Urmson, head of Google's self-driving car programme, states: "For the last 130 years, we've been working around that least reliable part of the car, the driver.

"We've made the car stronger. We've added seat belts, we've added air bags and, in the last decade, we've actually started trying to make the car smarter to fix that bug, the driver."

Scientists have actually been trying to automate cars since the 1920s. Over the last few decades, technological advances like anti-lock braking, active cruise control, assisted parking and automatic emergency braking have made the car a lot more "intelligent".

Still, it seems unthinkable that artificial intelligence built into a vehicle can do better than a human at the wheel.

But research has shown that is exactly so. Human error is the main cause of accidents.

And millions have died in road accidents in the last 130 years. Mr Urmson shared in a TED Talk in March last year that 1.2 million people are killed on the world's roads every year. As he graphically put it, it's like "a 737 falling out of the sky every working day".

Another factor spurring him on is the human cost involved: Traffic jams are worsening.

Mr Urmson said in the United States alone, based on an average commute time of 50 minutes multiplied by 120 million workers, six billion minutes are wasted in traffic every day.

"Divide it by the average life expectancy of a person - and that turns out to be 162 lifetimes spent every day, wasted - just getting from A to B," he noted.

If we agree that it is human impatience and failure to follow the rules which cause traffic jams, then cars with artificial intelligence and sensors can "talk" to each other and should be able to move in a more coordinated and much more efficient way.

Mr Urmson is also a man in a hurry. His son is 11 and will be able to get his driver's licence in 41/2 years.

"My team and I are committed to making sure that doesn't happen," he told his TED Talk audience.

Whether young people will no longer need a driving licence in four-plus years because autonomous cars will be so widely available remains to be seen.

In the meantime, Mr Phenix in his article humorously lists "10 things the driverless generation will never experience".

These include things like speeding tickets - because these vehicles won't try to beat the speed limit, even if the owner/passenger is running late or has a full bladder - and taking a driver's licence test and the accompanying bad photo for it. That would mean that the driving school instructor will go the way of the DVD seller. So, too, will anyone who uses a driving licence to make a living.

That generation will also never get lost, thanks to the car's Global Positioning System and route-planning technology, nor fear parallel parking as that will be another standard feature in autonomous vehicles.

Of Phenix's 10 lost things, my favourite is "driver prejudice". As he explains it: "In our autonomous future, every car will be driven exactly the same way so ageist, sexist, racist and regional driver prejudices will cease to exist."

In other words, nasty drivers won't be screaming "woman driver" as an insult or yell at a senior citizen to get out of the fast lane.

But, more importantly, the driverless generation should not experience accidents, road kills and road rage. Well, maybe they will still curse at their cars as humans tend to anthropomorphise inanimate objects.

Neither will they know car thefts because their vehicles will be so smart, they will be able to sense any attempt to break in and drive themselves away.

Lastly, high-speed chases will disappear from movies like people talking on landlines and in telephone booths, which would mean no more Fast And Furious sequels.

For a person like me who no longer enjoys being behind a steering wheel, driverless cars will be a boon, provided I can afford one after retirement.

Because there's the rub - the kind of technology they are putting in will increase car prices tremendously, at least for the first wave.

The prices will steadily drop, according to industry experts, but only in 2030 or 2035 will they become really affordable. By that time, I will need a wheelchair more than a car.

Mr Urmson is awesome in his presentation of the kind of super-duper software the Google cars have to sense their surroundings and then respond correctly, from pedestrians dashing out, weaving cyclists and unexpected roadworks to policemen directing traffic.

Still, I do note that all the road-testing by Google and automakers have been in places like the US, Europe and Japan.

That leads me to wonder if these cars, no matter how smart, can cope in cities like Mumbai, Jakarta, Hanoi, Guangzhou and Kuala Lumpur, where human intuition works better than any sensor in avoiding accidents and collisions.