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Opinion: Will 2020 kick-start the decade of the driven human?

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Ole!Connect’s,
Deseré Orrill, takes a look underneath the hood of autonomous transportation,
what it means to our future mobility, and whether we are ready to relinquish
the wheel, or not…

Deseré Orrill, Co-Founder and Chairman, Ole!Connect
Currently,
there’s a lot of posturing amongst the major car manufacturers, as they jockey
for position in the autonomous vehicle chase, with most of them predicting that
there will be some form of self-driving vehicle on the roads by the early to
mid-2020s – most likely as ride-hailing services (think Uber and Lyft) or
commercial transportation (set routes, set times). Similarly, other industry
voices chorus that autonomous vehicles are “coming soon,” with everyday people
now becoming more accustomed to the idea, too.

Notwithstanding
the optimism, and before we all climb into robotically chauffeured cars or have
our online goods delivered by people-less vans and trucks, there are still many
hurdles to be overcome – not only from a technological, but also from a
business, regulatory and ‘user’ point of view. Trial and error, never-ending
learning, infinite software updates and our new-old friend ‘artificial
intelligence’ are paving the road that autonomous vehicles will cruise on.

Quite
rightly, people are both excited by and fearful of the prospect of truly autonomous
transportation. Positive thoughts relate to the elimination of human error (an
autonomous vehicle is unlikely to be pulled over for reckless or drunk driving,
accidents due to drowsiness or heart attacks…). But the thought of technology
literally with a ‘mind of its own’ driving on our open roads and neighbourhood
streets, is also a scary idea.

To me,
it seems that the easiest part of the equation may be in perfecting the
self-driving technology hardware, despite its many complicated aspects. Companies
like Ford, General Motors, Nissan, Tesla, Mercedes and others are pouring
billions into their own R&D, and hundreds of smaller companies are offering
improved radars, cameras, lidars, maps, data management systems, and more to
the major vehicle companies.

However,
according to Nidhi Kalra, a roboticist who co-directs the Rand Corporation’s
Center for Decision Making Under Uncertainty, what makes autonomous vehicles
extremely different from even the most advanced ‘regular’ cars, is not merely
the additional hardware, but rather the software that is required to make these
systems functional, and the amount of it. Yes, there’s virtually no end to the
intelligent systems that are required to replicate human behaviour behind a
steering wheel. In addition to getting to know our human driving techniques,
the complex software environment also needs to include localization systems,
high-definition map overlays, perception systems, planning systems, not to
mention all the software needed to make the vehicle go forward without a foot
on the fuel pedal or a hand on the steering wheel.

Other
even more ‘human’ aspects to driving further add to the complexity: car
cultures differ from city to city, driving habits vary from courteous to
aggressive and everything in between – and cities have their own style of
driving that makes things flow. All this software gets updated all.the.time, so
when it comes to the operating systems, self-drive cars are likely to always
be  a Work-In-Progress. (A comforting
thought if you’re a software developer, a bit uncomfortable perhaps, if you’re
a passenger in transit when the updates come through.)

The
safety-related updates that software in autonomous vehicles need to undergo are
extremely rigorous and time consuming, and therefore also costly. This makes it
difficult to gauge when the safety measures will be deemed adequate – if ever –
and could also mean that the frequency of software updates is consciously
reduced. Research is working on ways to speed up that process, to get important
robotics safety updates proven, out and patched quickly. 

However,
the environment is in a constant state of flux or change, and even as a system
is perfected according to the conditions it perceives today, so new and
different conditions are unravelling all the time. Human instinct for adaption
is innate, but machines need to review, assess, analyse and interpret
situations and human reactions many times over in order to take appropriate
actions. It is this constant machine learning that will help to ceaselessly
improve the software that interprets the sensor data, which is based on
artificial intelligence and real-world examples to train the system.

Knowing
how to build a self-driving vehicle that works is one thing: building millions
of them and operating them is another entirely. Keeping vehicles on the road
involves a myriad of other service providers to help keep the vehicles running:
dealers, repair shops, fuel pumps, charging stations, parking garages, etc.
etc. While this will create numerous incredible business opportunities – some
which have not even been imagined – the existing maze of interlinked companies
built up over a century, will need to be vastly modified to help maintain
driverless vehicles. In the obsession with creating the vehicle, so far not
much time or thought seems to have been given to any of these aspects.

Then,
there is the conundrum around regulatory questions, which authorities around
the world will still spend many years resolving. Firstly, how do you change
safety standards that have been written with human drivers in mind? How should
vehicles without drivers be certified? How are insurance risks catered for? As
it is envisaged that the first self-driving vehicles in commercial operation
are likely to be transit services, it may be easier to legislate for vehicles
that operate within these static and limited confines on predefined routes.
However, this is still a far cry from what sort of legislation will be required
for truly driverless cars, and the development of these regulations will have a
profound influence on the roll-out rate of autonomous vehicles.

And
then, there are all the other departments that would be required to legislate
for and change their ways of thinking and dealing with vehicle safety and road
accidents or incidents, such as the fire, police, traffic, planning departments
to mention but a few. Imagine the first wrangles between autonomous vehicle
manufacturer, regulator, insurance companies, lawyers and legislators in the
event of an accident. We have no idea yet where this should even begin, and
certainly no concept of where it could end.

Like
in all healthy businesses and industry sectors, competition is inevitable: when
will the price wars start between the major providers of autonomous vehicles and
how will they decide to recoup their massive R&D costs? How will the
terrain be shared between the big dogs? Who will dominate which section of the
market? And how will these battles affect the timeframe for the roll-out of
autonomous vehicles to the man in the street?

While
there may be some cost saving, and certainly an increase in road safety is
anticipated, the modus operandi of the average person’s commute to work and
completion of regular chores that involve transportation of one kind or another
will change forever, when autonomous vehicles become a part of our daily lives.
As the cost of transportation decreases, and all the supporting industries
essential to regular vehicle operation and maintenance have fallen away or been
replaced with modified versions of themselves, the global economy will look
quite different to how it does today. The pace at which these changes take
place will play a monumental role in the pace at which autonomous vehicles may
become a part of everyday life.

Similarly,
humans may be able to change the landscape of their urban world, with different
ways of mobility enabling a different community arrangement and lifestyle. With
autonomous vehicles operating safely on predetermined routes, it could mean
that people could travel more frequently and further, but to a smaller variety
of destinations. Will this be welcomed, or will there be resistance? Humans’
own preferences may still affect the development path of autonomous vehicles in
ways that have not yet been foreseen by the vehicle manufacturers, whose eyes
are naturally upon the pot of gold that awaits them at the end of the
self-drive rainbow.

As a
positively prescient article in the New York Times in 1908 declared, “The
Horseless Carriage means trouble.” We should therefore all take a breather, if
only for a second, to wonder how our world will change when human constructs
become the ‘drivers’ and we humans merely ‘the driven’. Coming sooner than we
think. Or is it?
(Deseré
Orrill is the co-Founder and Chairman of Ole!Connect, a digital marketing
agency based in Cape Town. She is currently completing her MBA in Design
Thinking, with a special emphasis on all things digital. 
Views expressed in this article are of the author.)

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