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The holy grail: humans relaxing while an artificial intelligence does the driving. Picture: SUPPLIED
The holy grail: humans relaxing while an artificial intelligence does the driving. Picture: SUPPLIED

So what happened to all the self-driving cars?

Almost a decade ago it seemed all systems go for vehicles that would drive you to your destination while you took a nap, checked your email or watched your favourite TV show.

Apart from the convenience factor, self-driving cars are seen as a panacea for road safety given that the vast majority of collisions involve human error. Autonomous cars won’t break road rules or succumb to road rage, which should drastically reduce the 1.3-million lives lost on the world’s roads every year.

In recent years an increasing number of concept cars have appeared on motor show stands displaying lounge-like cockpits without steering wheels or pedals, where humans can relax while an artificial intelligence does the driving.

But here we are in 2022, still stressing out in heavy traffic dealing with inconsiderate drivers after adaptive cruise control, collision-avoidance features and lane-keeping systems were touted as stepping stones to an imminent hands-free driving future when they started appearing in cars a number of years ago. Drivers need to keep their hands on the steering wheel to use these features.

We’re getting closer to the holy grail of fully autonomous cars that can drive themselves in all conditions, but along with technology hurdles there is also red tape to overcome.

In the US, where there are more than 1,400 automated vehicles in testing by more than 80 companies, legislation to speed the deployment of self-driving vehicles has been stalled for years. Safety regulators are investigating a number of crashes involving Tesla’s misleadingly-named Autopilot driver assistance system which led to accidents by confusing some drivers into thinking the cars could drive themselves.

In one of the latest incidents, two men died in the US last year after their Tesla Model S, which was believed to be operating without anyone in the driver’s seat, crashed into a tree.

While the US lacks a national policy, driverless taxis are entering into service in certain cities under controlled conditions.

Cruise, Tesla, Alphabet’s Waymo and Aurora Innovation are among many companies aiming to deploy fully autonomous vehicles within the next two to three years.

Waymo introduced the first fully driverless taxi service in the country. It has driven thousands of people since opening a year ago east of Phoenix, and since August, hundreds in San Francisco have trialled cabs with safety drivers aboard.

General Motors-owned Cruise vehicles can operate on public roads in designated parts of San Francisco between 10pm and 6am, at a maximum 48km/h.

Driverless taxi services are also taking to the roads in China, including Baidu which has offered free robotaxi rides in Yizhuang since October 2020. Those self-driving cars have human staff members onboard but the company has also been testing fully autonomous driverless vehicles in Beijing.

The UK government recently announced that cars fitted with automatic lane-keeping systems (Alks) will be permitted to drive at up to 60km/h on motorways from this year. The UK’s transport ministry forecasts by 2035 about 40% of new UK cars could have self-driving capabilities.

Regulations across Europe remain fragmented while a harmonising legal framework is being worked on, but level 4 autonomous vehicles and driverless busses are set to make their debut in Germany this year. Level 4 means autonomous vehicles don’t require human interaction, but have set travel points and are restricted to specific boundaries.

In SA the department of transport plans to introduce new regulations around self-driving cars. In its strategic performance plan for 2021/2022, the department said it expects to complete the regulations in 2022/2023.

There are legal snags to introducing driverless vehicles too, such as who would be responsible for a crash involving a self-driving car: the driver or the car manufacturer?

Hacking poses another, darker aspect of robotised cars. With modern vehicles getting ever more connected with infotainment and navigation systems, Wi-Fi and over-the-air software updates, the fear is that control of a self-driving car could be remotely taken over by a hacker with nefarious intentions.

Worryingly, security researchers have been able to get cars to drive off the road by remotely taking over their steering, acceleration, brakes and other functions. Foolproof cyber security will play an important part of unleashing millions of self-driving cars onto the roads.

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