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Driverless cars save lives

Driverless cars save lives
12 February 2017

ALTHOUGH driverless cars is something all major automakers and even tech companies like Google and Apple are working on, it still feels like it’s in the realm of science fiction.

If you ask someone who’s not in the auto industry if they’d feel comfortable riding in a driverless car, the likely answer is no. And you’d be in good company. According to a recent Deloitte study released in January, nearly 75 per cent of Americans don’t believe driverless cars will be safe.

The expansive study, which surveyed 22,000 consumers from 17 countries, found that a majority of respondents had safety concerns about fully autonomous vehicles, with China at the lowest (62 per cent) and South Korea at the highest (81 per cent). The US is somewhere in between but 75 per cent is not a low figure!

It’s understandable that people have concerns about a new technology that isn’t yet ready for prime time. But this is a serious technology development that will revolutionise the auto industry and it’s not just fad. It’s a certainty that driverless cars will be a common feature in our lives, certainly within a decade.

Why are driverless cars so important that every automaker worth its salt is researching heavily into it? Driverless cars are superior in terms of safety. And by reducing traffic fatalities, it also reduces congestion and carbon emissions.

Every serious study of driverless cars has concluded that they’ll be safer than those driven by people. This shouldn’t be surprising. People are terrible drivers. Consider this: Some 93 per cent of road accidents are caused by human error. People do things they aren’t supposed to do on the road like driving drunk or texting. Sometimes, sleepiness is the cause of accidents. None of these things would happen with a driverless cars (a computer won’t get drunk, get distracted by a Whatsapp message or feel drowsy).

This isn’t to say there are no potential downsides. The most obvious one is that when driverless cars become commonplace, it’ll have a drastic effect on people who drive for a living ­— taxi drivers, Uber drivers, chauffeurs, etc. And if cars can be driverless, presumably so can trucks and buses, so you can also look at massive unemployment in those industries as well.

Traditionally, driving a taxi — or increasingly these days, an Uber — is a profession that many people who get retrenched fall back on. With the advent of driverless cars, driving a car for hire will no longer be a viable option for the newly unemployed.

The other serious potential pitfall is the fact that as cars become more of a digital device and less a mechanical one, it inevitably becomes more susceptible to hacking. Make no mistake, a driverless car will have a huge computing component to it. For a car to be driverless, it needs to not just be good at following set rules but also the ability to recognise patterns and prescribe appropriate responses. This requires a powerful computer. What if someone hacks into it? At best, he decides to just stall the car. At worst, he can make it crash.

Speaking of crash, each time a driverless car crashes — and this will inevitably happen as no system is foolproof — it will be big news. Remember the news about a Tesla Model S which crashed into a truck resulting in the death of the man inside it, in Florida? (Technically, you could call him the “driver” of the car but he wasn’t driving at the time as the car was on autopilot).

An investigation into this high-profile driverless car crash by the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) cleared Tesla of any defects in its car. As such, there was no need for a recall of that model, which was a “smart car” that had systems capable of maintaining speed and distance to other cars on the road, lane position and overtaking.

The NHTSA said that the driver didn’t apply the brakes and that he “should have been able to take some action before the crash, like braking, steering or attempting to avoid the vehicle. He took none of those actions.” The agency added that the truck should have been visible to the driver for at least seven seconds before impact.

Of course, car crashes happen every day and highway accidents aren’t uncommon. So why would a car crash, involving a driverless car, receive more attention than one that had a driver behind the wheel? Because driverless cars are new and fascinating,so they naturally draw more public scrutiny and attention when something bad happens.

And whenever a driverless car is involved in a fatality, you can be sure that there’ll be some hysterical reaction to it, with some people calling for a ban and others boycotting such cars. That might not be a logical thing to do given that all studies so far have indicated that driverless cars would be much safer than people-driven cars. But people are generally more emotional than rational when it comes to transportation-related deaths.

Look at the case of plane crashes. Whenever that happens, it’s big news and a certain segment of the population will swear off flying anytime soon. Logically, it makes no sense to do that because statistically speaking, planes are way safer than cars when it comes to fatalities. It’s rare that people die in a plane crash but people die in traffic accidents every day.

Whatever misgivings you might have about driverless cars, know this: They’re happening. Driverless cars are the future of the automotive industry and its ascendance is just a matter of when, not if.

For sure, there’ll be car aficionados who’ll want to buy vintage cars that need to be driven by humans. They’re not too different from those who collect vinyl records. But for the rest of us, we can look forward to being driven wherever we want to go. And when that day comes, there’ll be fewer accidents and deaths, as well as less traffic jams and pollution. That’s really something to look forward to.

Oon Yeoh is a consultant with experiences in print, online and mobile media. reach him at oonyeoh@gmail.com.

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