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Self-driving cars - the way of the future

02.05.2014

THIS time of year is about family and the onslaught of public holidays has meant many of us have enjoyed short work weeks and commuting to work has been a breeze thanks to the ease of traffic congestion.

In fact, I’m sure my blood pressure and stress levels are down and I’ve added another five years to my life purely because I haven’t had to swear my way to the office every day.

Of course with the Easter break means a lot of people have travelled and taken vacations so the big question is always: “What’s the Easter weekend death toll?” It’s sad, but we are creatures of habit and want to see the stats. According to the preliminary figures announced by the Transport Minister, Dipuo Peters, the death toll is lower by around 50 compared to the previous year.

Of the 193 lives lost this season, it’s reported that KwaZulu-Natal had the highest fatalities rate of 49, followed by the Eastern Cape (36), Limpopo (30) and Gauteng (23).

The fact that road deaths are down is a good sign, given the current conditions of our roads. But perhaps the most frightening figure is that pedestrians accounted for as much as 40 percent of those who lost their lives.
The minister herself said: “We need to really deal with the 40 percent of pedestrians. That is our biggest barrier right now.”

Despite these findings, there will always be controversy surrounding the figures and while an apparent 283 323 vehicles were stopped over the period of 17- 21 April, only 330 motorists were arrested for drunken driving and 10 for negligent driving.
Ultimately, human error is largely responsible for the high number of deaths on our roads. We are tasked with piloting machines capable of reaching ridiculous speeds and admittedly very few of us have the proper training on how to handle a vehicle should things go wrong.

Getting a licence is simple. Write the test; do the K53 driving course and you’re certified to drive a death trap, legally. Or, you can opt for the illegal version of bribing an official and you can still drive a death trap, legally. Either way the results are the same. Our roads are filled with ill-prepared drivers.
Perhaps it is for this reason that companies like Google are investing heavily to produce self-driving cars.

Now into its city testing phase, Google said it’s driven thousands of miles along the streets of California, near the company’s headquarters, south of San Francisco; this, after several years of testing the self-drive vehicles on freeways, where the roads are more predictable.

Utilising video cameras, radar sensors and lasers, you will be forgiven for thinking this car belongs in a James Bond movie. But these nifty technological features use a database of information collected from human driven cars to help navigate the streets.

“We’ve improved our software so it can detect hundreds of distinct objects simultaneously - pedestrians, buses, a stop sign held up by a crossing guard, or a cyclist making gestures that indicate a possible turn,” explains Chris Urmson, director of Google’s self-driving car project.

Google must be rather proud of the fact that its test vehicles have logged more than 1.1 million kilometres in self-driving mode since 2009 and its vehicles are yet to cause an accident, while being operational in self-drive mode.
You may have read there was an accident involving a self-driving car in 2010. The reason… it was rear-ended while stationary at a traffic light. Once again, human flaws at fault.

The company recently posted a video depicting the vehicle driving and how it navigates from its perspective. But the company has admitted there are still problems that need to be ironed out before it can start testing other streets in other towns.

However, Google is just one of many automotive companies testing self-driving car technology. Others include Nissan, Audi and Toyota. While Mercedes-Benz and Nissan hope to start producing and selling self-driving cars by 2020. Volvo’s also launched its new project ‘Drive Me’- featuring 100 self-driving Volvos on public roads in everyday conditions.

This, as campaigns like Vision Zero and others try to make the world’s roads fatality-free by 2020. Here’s hoping...

Article written by Stuart Moir
02.05.2014
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