Are we ready to shift gears and get behind self-driving cars?

Tesla needs to be 99.999 per cent accurate to be a fully autonomous car. That's a big distance to cover.

By Shalini Verma

Published: Mon 4 Feb 2019, 7:00 PM

Last updated: Mon 4 Feb 2019, 9:08 PM

It is frightening to take your first ride in a car that is moving at 120 kilometres an hour, with its steering wheel maneuvering on its own, while the driver's foot is off the accelerator pedal. Tesla is not yet a fully autonomous car, but it sees and knows enough to negotiate traffic conditions, maintain a safe distance, and raise its chassis when it approaches a speed bump. You can summon the car, and also sit back and let it park for you. Yet we are not quite there.
In a recent quarterly call, Elon Musk posited that autonomous cars are at 98 per cent accuracy. Tesla needs to be 99.999 per cent accurate to be a fully autonomous car. That's a big distance to cover.
Today, our roads are choking with vehicles. Engineers can build as many flyovers and expressways, we can still find a way to pile them with vehicles and crash them. We haven't convincingly solved the age-old problem of efficiently getting from A to B. Autonomous cars hold the promise of a more efficient, pleasant and safe ride. In UAE, majority of the road fatalities is because of human errors such as tailgating, speeding and sudden swerving. Autopilot will help alleviate problems like driver fatigue and inattention.
Car manufacturers have revved up their R&D engine as they race to the autopilot finish line. Millions of dollars are pouring into Automated Vehicle technology that is allowing entirely new participants such as Google, Apple, Uber to enter the automobiles market. We are on the cusp of a massive revolution in transportation. In 2018, Roads and Transport Authority (RTA) announced that the city is ready for flying taxis, following the successful trial of the world's first automatic flying taxi in 2017. We have been dreaming up autonomous cars since the 1920s, and so a century's worth of research has gone into humanity's desire to delegate driving to machines.
Driverless cars are loaded with millions of lines of software code, sensors, lidar, maps, cameras. The drop in prices of most of these moving parts will determine mass production. The vehicles are crunching data such as videos, to learn how to recognise lane lines, street signs, and traffic light positions. But we need more sophisticated algorithms and data to achieve full automation. Society of Automotive Engineers has published automation standards - a measure of the car's intelligence. Level-0 is a manual car as we always knew them, while Level-5 is complete automation. To put things in perspective, Tesla cars are at Level 3. The company like many others is aspiring for Level-5 in the next few years.
There is an air of caution surrounding these driverless cars. Automakers are not ready to put their Automated Vehicle technology in complete autopilot mode. They recommend that the driver holds the steering wheel at all times, even when autopilot is engaged. Reason being? Road tests have been conducted with 100s of cars and not millions; in a handful of cities. So, caution needs to be exercised. Waymo, a Google spin off, recently launched its commercial app-based autonomous ride-share service in and around Phoenix, but with Waymo-trained test drivers behind the wheel. Ride-share services like Uber and Lyft are raring to lose their drivers to offer driverless service.
In a fully autonomous car, the steering wheel, accelerator and brake pedals may disappear over time. The car will take crucial decisions while driving through a snowstorm in Chicago, or around the pensive looking cows on Mumbai roads. So, whether you are a monster truck driver or a sedan driver, or simply a back-seat driver, you are likely to lose your driving skills over time. Driving may just become a weekend hobby, while taxi drivers will be left behind. Road rage will become quite unnecessary, and tailgating that is so common on the UAE roads, will be hard to achieve when the car unilaterally takes decisions. The cars will communicate with one another and amicably settle disputes on the fly.
A lot will change in terms of regulation. Will you still require a driver's license? How will a city regulate a car's decision on whom to hit when faced with difficult moral choices before an imminent crash? Should it swerve and self-implode, or should it hit jay walkers? These are big decisions.
Autonomous cars could become yet another placebo for our traffic ills, if regulators do not plan in advance. Adam Millard-Ball, associate professor of environmental studies at the University of California, believes that self-driving cars will worsen traffic congestion as they will cruise around streets to avoid paying parking tickets. So transportation authorities need to consider all scenarios when autonomous cars crowd out manual ones.
Companies can learn from autonomous car pioneers why perseverance and diligence are the two most important tools in their quest for artificial intelligence (AI) and automation. Any AI application needs constant tending through tests and training. Drivers will need to let go of the steering wheel once they discover the sheer convenience of a machine driving them around. 
-Shalini Verma is the CEO of PIVOT technologies

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