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Are self-driving cars the future of transportation?

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Self-driving cars are on the increase, and are likely to soon be roaming the streets of South Africa. But how do they work? Are they safe? And what are the benefits of this futuristic-type tech? The future of transportation is changing, and we’re in for quite the ride (excuse the pun).


Driverless technology is on the rise, but no one quite knows when – or if – self-driving cars will become the norm in South Africa. This seemingly sci-fi tech that is fast becoming a popular topic of conversation has been developed over a longer period than one might realise. The first of its kind was a radio-controlled car invented by Francis Houdina in 1925. Houdina’s car could turn on, shift gears and hoot without anyone behind the wheel. Fast forward 85 odd years, and we have Google’s Waymo project that resulted in the first driverless car that was 100 percent autonomous.


Major automotive companies like Ford, BMW and Mercedes Benz have jumped onto this fast-approaching trend, and have started developing self-park, steering and accident control technologies. But how does this tech actually work?


Autonomous vehicles make use of sensors and complex algorithmic software to control, navigate and drive these cars. Their built-in laser beams create and maintain an internal map of the surroundings, and navigate the road accordingly. While they are hard-coded to avoid obstacles, and follow certain traffic rules, the reliability of this software, and the safety of these vehicles is still a topic of debate.


While some argue that self-driving cars could hypothetically reduce the number of road accidents, others say that technology, like humans, can be prone to error. The first driverless car fatality that occurred earlier this year when an Uber vehicle operating in ‘autonomous mode’ with a human ‘safety driver’ behind the wheel killed a pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona is testament to these concerns. The car in question registered the ‘obstacle’ in front of it but chose not to react, resulting in Uber recalling their autonomous vehicles, and putting an immediate stop to their on-road testing.


While South Africa is slightly behind with this technology, we are likely to see the emergence of self-driving cars on our roads in the near future. How we choose to react, and interact with this technology, is up to us. But it’s time to start thinking about how we feel about letting a machine take the wheel.