Uber and Ola are huge global taxi companies, but they own very few cars. Their highly sophisticated systems of fleet management and GPS-based navigation through city traffic, however, make them so easily available and inexpensive.
They have also revolutionised personal transportation in over a thousand major towns worldwide, with the result that many people don’t need to keep a car any more. But, a passenger car with a driver can only carry 3 passengers. And, if the driver can be eliminated, it will increase its passenger capacity by 25 per cent to greatly improve a taxi’s earning power and profitability.
The idea of a driverless car is scary, but the ongoing revolution in electronics is achieving many amazing things. A robot on an automotive manufacturing line is, for example, many times faster and more efficient than a hundred workers; and they do not make mistakes, don’t need medicare or welfare benefits and they never get tired or go on strike. Modern robots can even do highly sensitive things like playing music or intelligent things like playing chess.
Human error is also, by far, the largest cause of accidents. So, a tiny robot hidden somewhere in a car may actually be a lot safer than a mortal human driver who can get tired, drunk or distracted by their mobile or an attractive person.
There are already a few driverless trains, but the idea of a driverless car or a pilotless plane makes people feel scared. Over the past decade, most automotive engineering has been driven by electronics that not only make engine management, suspensions and brakes much safer, but also play a huge role in climate control, lighting, security and make a car easier to drive, more reliable and efficient. A modern automobile, therefore, has more chips in them than there are in a packet of wafers.
Many modern cars not only have sensors to scan the road ahead, but they also spot approaching cars, pedestrians or other hazards behind them and on their sides. They are programmed to begin safety measures like slowing the car or setting off hazard warnings. Many cars are also programmed to park themselves or reverse into a small garage without the driver at the wheel. Such gadgets will, however, make autonomous cars expensive. So, they will be used mainly as commercial cars that travel long distances every year.
Several companies like Ford, GM, Tesla, Toyota, Volkswagen, Volvo and others are already trying out several technologies for autonomous cars. A fleet of self-driving Google cars have so far clocked-up more than 300,000 miles without an accident. But, road safety authorities in USA, Germany, Japan and elsewhere are not fully convinced. Cars can be very dangerous, so the safety of pedestrians and other commuters can’t be ignored.
There have, however, been glitches. The first death in an autonomous car occurred in May last year and a man was killed after his Tesla, operating in Autopilot mode, hit a big lorry. His system failed to spot the white truck against a brightly lit sky, so the self-driving system failed. It will therefore take some time before autonomous cars are commercialised, but most auto experts believe that it will happen in the not-so-distant future.
Autonomous cars will be around before very long. Safety systems will carefully map probable traffic conditions in any city, but one wonders whether the designers will be able to anticipate the chaotic conditions on Indian streets with badly regulated mixed traffic comprising cars, buses, pedestrians, motorcycles, cycles, animals and other similar hazards.
Murad Ali Baig
Senior automobile analyst