The Self-Driving Car

The Self-Driving Car

Self-driving cars seem to be everywhere these days. Not literally, of course, but at least in terms of media coverage and mindshare. Google and Uber are fighting over ownership of autonomous driving technology even as they continue to test their self-driving cars, self-driving Tesla cars continue to crash, and journalists continue to write about self-driving cars as if they were just around the corner. The reality is, no matter how much we love the idea of cars that can drive themselves, the technology simply isn't ready yet, and may not be for the next 10 years or more.

There are two schools of thought when it comes to autonomous driving. One, quite simply, says that the technology is either fully, totally, completely ready, or it's not. The binary approach. Zero or one. All or nothing. The other approach is where self-driving tech is categorised in 'levels,' with the lowest being capable of performing some functions (like sticking to a particular lane, maintaining a set distance from the vehicle in front, braking automatically when an obstacle is detected in the car's path, parallel parking assistance etc.) without human assistance, and the highest, when it's ready, meant to provide full self-driving capability.

Tesla subscribes to the second school of thought, saying that their 'autopilot' system will drive a car on its own – at least most of the time – but needs an 'alert' human being at the wheel, who can take over as and when required, when the car's computers fail to respond to an unforeseen situation on the road. That, to me, is utterly ridiculous. Would you hand over your car's controls to a 15-year-old, who might keep your car going on a straight stretch of road, in orderly traffic, in bright sunlight, in a perfect world, but who may, at any given moment, need you to take over the controls in a split second, without any advance warning, the minute something goes wrong? No way!

Driving a car is an extremely complex activity, requiring mechanical ability, manual dexterity, practise, precision, vision and hearing. Also, emotional, moral and mathematical judgement. Along with extended periods of 'alertness,' where the brain may be sub-consciously making dozens of decisions per second, based on surrounding road and traffic conditions. Can computers replicate that? Someday, I'm sure they will be able to, and cars will drive themselves better than humans ever could. But that might take another billion km of testing hardware and software systems, until those are close to perfect. Indeed, until the time autonomous cars are at least 99.99 % perfect – and right now they simply aren't – those should not be sold to the general public under any circumstances. In India, this is currently not an issue anyway, but maybe this is a good time for the government to get laws and regulations in place, to prepare us for the time when robo-car is ready to take over.

Sameer Kumar
Executive Editor