How exciting is the $100 bn bet on driverless cars for Indian roads

How exciting is the $100 bn bet on driverless cars for Indian roads

Auto makers such as Ford, General Motors, Toyota, Nissan, Volvo and Audi have all announced plans to sell cars, with advanced automation features that are able to self-drive on highways or park themselves, within a decade. Bengaluru: Imagine a driverless car successfully navigating its way through the chaotic traffic in Mumbai, Bengaluru or Gurgaon.

It’s an appealing yet Utopian idea, at least on most Indian roads for now. Despite this realization, why do most of us get excited whenever there’s an announcement from tech and car companies over driverless cars?

Elon Musk, for instance, boldly predicted on Monday during the Tesla Autonomy Investor Day that he expects the steering wheel to be done away with in a few years. Tesla also expects full self-driving (FSD) cars, in which humans won’t have to touch the steering wheel, around the second quarter of next year. Musk claimed he had the best processing chip in the world to help him in this task.

Will Musk meet the deadline and have the FSD cars and fleet of autonomous “robo-taxis” by early next year? Or will his predictions be like the one he made on 19 October, 2016 , in which he claimed that “All Tesla Cars Being Produced Now Have Full Self-Driving Hardware”.

To his credit, Musk is trying hard. In a 3 April blog, Tesla said that since the company introduced Navigate on Autopilot in 2018, Tesla drivers have traveled more than 66 million miles using the feature, and more than 9 million suggested lane changes have been successfully executed with the feature in use.

With the latest version of Navigate on Autopilot, drivers have the option to use Navigate on Autopilot without having to confirm lane changes via the turn stalk. Tesla claims that its internal testing and Early Access Program reveal that more than half a million miles have already been driven with the lane change confirmation turned off.

Tesla is not alone on the driveless car journey. A number of global automakers including Volkswagen and Toyota have poured billions of dollars into driverless car technology over the last few years. A study by car leasing firm Leasing Options pegs the investment in driverless car technology at over $100 billion with German automotive carmaker Volkswagen topping the list by accounting for 57% of that investment–$54.2 billion.

Auto makers such as Ford, General Motors, Toyota, Nissan, Volvo and Audi have all announced plans to sell cars, with advanced automation features that are able to self-drive on highways or park themselves, within a decade. Besides, there are many cars available with technologies like anti-lock brakes, adaptive cruise control (maintains a safe distance from other vehicles) or automated parking.

Also, while Tesla is betting big on computer vision, companies like Google’s Waymo (an Alphaphet Inc. company) and Uber use LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging). The latter fires rapid pulses of laser light at a surface while a sensor on the instrument measures the amount of time it takes for each pulse to bounce back and guage the distance. Musk claims LIDAR is not necessary since a combination of cameras and radars can do a better job. The jury is out on this, though.

Chairman of the board of management of Volkswagen Group, Herbert Diess, Great advances are being made in the necessary technology, but there is still a lot of hard work ahead for the industry.

“A lot also depends on what authorities in each location approve. That (autonomous cars) will look different in China, the United States and Europe .”. According to Diess, In Herbert Diess, self-driving cars must perform 100 to 1,000 times better than humans to gain societal acceptance. “A ratio of ten-to-one is nowhere near good enough. We have approximately 3,200 traffic fatalities in Germany each year. It would be a disaster if we had even 320 deaths due to driverless cars.”

To be sure, in the world of driverless cars where multiple systems interact and conditions change over time, an AI algorithm will have to do a lot of explaining if a vehicle takes a wrong turn or bumps into someone or knocks down someone, or worse still, kills people.

On 18 March, for instance, a driverless car operated by Uber struck and killed a woman on a street in Tempe, Arizona, despite having an emergency backup driver behind the wheel. Following the incident, Uber suspended testing in Tempe as well as in Pittsburgh, San Francisco and Toronto.

Waymo, an autonomous car company from Google’s parent company Alphabet, has been testing a fleet of self-driving vehicles without any backup drivers on public roads since November 2017. Other companies that are experimenting with driverless cars include Tesla Inc., Nissan Motor Co. Ltd and General Motors Co.

Self-driving cars must reduce traffic fatalities by at least 75% to stay on the roads, according to a 30 May, 2018, study published in Risk Analysis. Further, as technology improves, automated vehicles will outperform their human counterparts, saving lives by eliminating accidents caused by human error.

Yet, self-driving vehicles will need to make decisions in a morally challenging situation like avoiding a child running on the road but endangering other lives in the bargain. How should it be programmed to behave?

Humans take these decisions routinely, though they can err many times. Academics and authorities are in the process of regulating guidelines for driverless cars to take such difficult decisions. But we still have a long way to go before we see a truly driverless car on Indian roads, at least.

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