Autonomous vehicles are getting there


Two self-drive vehicles have been involved in separate crashes within hours of each other in California. A Tesla Model S drove into the back of a parked fire truck and a General Motors Chevy Bolt was in collision with a motorbike. This being America, with its gunslinging lawyers, the injured motorcyclist is suing General Motors, not the person in the car who had switched over to self-drive.

Each crash has been an embarrassment for the automakers. But it seems significant that the once deafening and listened-to arguments of those deeply opposed to autonomous drive vehicles are now not so loud, if indeed they are being heard at all. Federal and state authorities are no longer considering outright bans because they think these vehicles dangerous. What they are seeking to do, purely on safety grounds, is regulate the development of the application of the technology.

At the moment, an automobile can drive itself but only when a driver is sitting behind the wheel ready to intervene and take over in the event of an emergency. Cruise control has worked like this for years though while a driver could take his foot off the gas, he still had to be holding the steering wheel. California’s Department of Motor Vehicles is now actually considering allowing no one to be behind the wheel. The person on board could be sitting in the back reading a newspaper or catching up on the TV news.

The technology behind the vehicle autopilot is of course genuine rocket science. When space engineers can design landing modules that set themselves down delicately on the surface of the Moon and Mars, all controlled by high-powered computer programs with minimal input from people back at mission control, designing automobiles with the same level of autonomy ought to be easy. The difference of course is that the surfaces of Mars and the Moon are not crowded with other landing modules that could collide with each other. Busy highways back on earth are another matter.

There can be no doubt that there will be more crashes and sadly deaths before autonomous motoring is made foolproof. And even when, probably not that far into the future, it becomes standard, there will still be failures. But each year there are around 1.3 million deaths on roads around the world. Many more people are injured, some of them crippled for life. The UN has estimated that these wrecks cost society $500 billion annually. It is hard to believe that self-driving vehicles will not slash these hideous figures.

And there is something else; a vehicle that is using satellite location as well as onboard sensors to monitor its immediate environment will also be obeying speed limits, traffic lights and stop signs. Initially, of course, this new generation of trucks and automobiles will still allow drivers to override their automated systems and take personal control. But in time there will be no more drivers, just passengers and in freight trucks, probably no one at all. It is hard to underestimate the safety boon this will represent. Here in the Kingdom, new technologies are adopted rapidly. The idea that the Kingdom’s roads could quickly change from being, thanks to the awful standard of driving, among the world’s most dangerous to the safest, is extremely attractive.