Look ma, no hands, no licence . . .

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

On Sunday afternoon at around 14h30 on the R510 outside Sun City, the driver of a panel van carrying 14 passengers tried to overtake three vehicles and collided head-on with an oncoming bus.

All the passengers of the van and the driver died instantly. The bus driver and his 28 passengers sustained minor injuries.

Had that happened over Easter weekend or over the Xmas holidays, we would have had a media outcry.

We would have the Minister of Transport threatening to reduce the speed limit. We would have the Minister of Health calling for a crackdown on alcohol advertising. The premier of the North West would have visited the victims’ families.

Now here's the good news. In ten years time or less, there's a very strong possibility that horror accidents will be gone forever.

I like sticking my neck out making predictions around this kind of stuff because I'm usually correct. Hear me out.

A number of people from a range of industries have been working on the idea of cars that drive themselves.

Google was among the pioneers of this field, unveiling their self-driving car in 2009. The idea was initially met with resistance with many commentators speculating that most people would be uncomfortable handing control of their vehicle over to a computer.

But the European Union clearly saw the value of the concept, launching a project called Safe Road Trains for the Environment – codenamed Satre. The project announcement said:

"Just imagine leaving home in the morning and, just after joining the motorway, meeting up with a number of other cars which inch up to each other, travelling at normal speed in a close-formation convoy.

"After a few minutes you can let go of the steering wheel and spend your time reading the morning paper, talking on the phone or watching the TV, while your car drives itself in complete safety and also saving fuel!"

How does this work? The idea is that you have lead vehicles (a bus for example) driven by experienced drivers travelling a particular route – say, the M4 from Ballito to Durban. If your car is equipped with Satre navigation systems, transmitters, and receivers, all you would need to do is to get behind the lead vehicle and let the electronics take over.

Your car will follow and imitate the movements of the lead driver perfectly slowing down or speeding up as needed. Any Satre cars behind you will do the same following your car. Meanwhile, you can read this newspaper, surf the internet, or take a nap.

Satre has been tested successfully in Europe over the past few years. It works. It works well.

Now, the final step is almost a reality. Volvo has unveiled a self-drive car that drops off its driver, finds a parking space, and parks itself. When the car is needed again, it picks up the driver.

It's a fascinating bit of technology which relies on transmitters being built into the road infrastructure. The car then tells you that the service is available, drops you off and parks itself.

When you want it back, fire up an app on your smartphone and it comes to pick you up.

If there are pedestrians or other cars in the area, your car knows how to avoid them.

Things are now moving really quickly in this field. In the United States, transport regulators last month released a policy framework to speed up the development of such vehicles as well as mapping out paths to standards around vehicle-to-vehicle communication systems.

General Motors, Toyota, and VW are also working on such vehicles. Google, for its part, retrofits its technology to existing vehicles.

So where is this all going?

Fortunately, car manufacturers have a global outlook and so will work together developing common standards that can be implemented in any market. The policy framework being developed in the US and Europe will eventually become the basis of an international regulatory body to oversee global standards (as is the case in the aviation and telecommunications industries).

It's only a matter of time thereafter before regulators insist that only autonomous vehicles are allowed on public roads.

In other words, most of the human race will never have need of a driving licence.

Cars themselves will change. I expect that luxury vehicles will sport flat bed seats as is the case with business class long haul flights. Fall asleep in your car in Johannesburg and wake up the following morning in Durban.

In-car entertainment systems will become more elaborate with wide screen TVs. I, for one, will insist on a bar with an espresso machine in mine.

Traffic lights will no longer be needed as cars effortlessly drive across each other's path at intersections.

And many marriages will be saved when spouses are no longer able to pick on the driving habits of their partners.