From Jack Kerouac’s quintessential American novel On The Road to the sons of the Bob Marley Africa Roadtrip documentary via Siberian Ice Road Truckers, the act of driving has been laden with symbolism for as long as there have been cars. Driving is freedom.
Driving is machismo. Driving is wealth, the fundamental base of modern capitalism.
Enjoy it while you can. According to South African-born automotive entrepreneur Elon Musk, the act of driving may soon be outlawed. “You can’t have a person controlling a two-ton death machine,” Musk told an audience at a tech conference in San Jose, California earlier this year.
The context of Musk’s comments, of course, is that they came as part of a discussion about self-driving cars and autonomous vehicles. Musk believes that his company, Tesla, will soon be a world leader in autonomous vehicles, much as it is in electric cars and off-grid power. That’s despite the fact that his firm hasn’t yet begun testing self-driving cars on the road, unlike its competitors Google, Mercedes-Benz and Volvo.
Musk told the audience that he considers autonomous vehicles to be inevitable and, if they are safer than human drivers, will ultimately be the only way to travel. “This may sound a little complacent,” Musk told the audience, “[But] I almost view it as a solved problem. We know exactly what to do, and we’ll be there in a few years.”
Much of the discussion of autonomous vehicles has been focused on cars, and specifically low mileage city transportation. Proponents, such as Google chairman Eric Schmidt, talk at length about the promise of orderly machines that intelligently avoid accidents or building congestion. Google’s cars use cameras, lasers and radar with a 360-degree field of vision around the vehicle to detect potential problems and avoid them with superhuman reflexes.
Combined with highly accurate maps and GPS to plot a route, obey the speed limit and look ahead for signs of traffic build-up, the theory is that self-driving cars will be able to avoid collisions, potholes, pedestrians and make our cities safer and more efficient. To date, Google’s test fleet has been involved in 12 minor accidents, all of which, it claims, were caused by human-controlled cars, or when the self-driving car was being manually driven.
“The sooner we can get cars to drive for us,” Schmidt told journalists in 2012, “The more lives we can save.”
According to World Health Organisation statistics, African countries make up 19 of the bottom 20 list for road deaths per 100?000 motor vehicles on the road, and South Africa has the seventh worst death toll on the roads per 100?000 people in the population (Nigeria is sixth). If self-driving cars are safer than manually controlled vehicles, there’s no greater need for them than here.
If the self-driving car is set to revolutionise personal transport, it follows that freight haulage will be next. Just as cargo by sea is now ferried around the world on ships that have their courses programmed into an autopilot from thousands of miles away, so the 16-wheeler, articulated truck of the future might be driven by iPad.
Daimler, for example, is currently testing an autonomous cab in the US and in Germany.
The Freightliner Inspiration, which is legal to operate in Nevada, isn’t quite as intelligent as the pod-like Google cars that currently zip around San Francisco, but it’s certainly a lot more sophisticated than your average cruise control. It can’t, for example, change lane or get off of a highway without a human at the wheel, but in Highway Pilot mode it uses forward facing cameras to stay within lane markings and avoid front-end collisions.
Most pertinently, says Daimler, the Inspiration automates braking and acceleration, improving fuel efficiency in ways no human can.
It’s not just on-road transport that stands ready to be transformed either. Land Rover recently demoed a Range Rover prototype that can be driven over rough terrain using nothing more than a smartphone app. As long as the driver remains within 10m of the car, and sticks to a top speed of 6km/h, there are few places the off-roader can’t be directed into using a touchscreen.
Right now, though, no one in Africa is really talking about the possibility of self-driving trucks changing the way goods are moved around the continent. Technology entrepreneur Mpho Sefalafala, whose work in app development straddles logistics fleet management and public transport, says it’s not a subject many are looking at here.
“Everyone’s talking about self-driving automobiles for cars,” says Sefalala, “But it’s not something that comes up in freight and logistics conversations yet.”
That’s not to say it won’t, of course. The phrase “smart city”, implying a networked urban space where artificial intelligences monitor everything from irrigation to traffic lights, appeared in the budget speeches for the Gauteng legislature, City of Johannesburg, Tshwane and Cape Town this year — there’s a local government drive to modernise our infrastructure and lots of international interest. In the smart city, autonomous cars are the ultimate transport — a group of researchers from the University of Columbia recently modelled what would happen to New York if all taxis were autonomous, and summoned via the smartphone app Uber.
Here in South Africa, we’re not as far behind as you think. Wayne de Nobrega, chief executive of vehicle recovery firm Tracker, which uses GPS devices to locate stolen vehicles, says that his company made the decision to embrace smart technology and become a data-oriented firm rather than a product-oriented one several years ago. What that means, he explains, is that recovering cars is only a small product of what Tracker now does: its on-board devices feed back data about traffic flows to popular multinational route-finding services, for example. Built-in collision detectors summon ambulances when they detect an overly abrupt stop and warn road agencies of incidents.
In perhaps the boldest move, the same motion sensor can also relay data about the quality of a road’s surface, and could potentially save municipalities millions of rand by working out which highways and byways are about to become in need of repair months before they give way.
This is the kind of data that autonomous vehicles will thrive on and require to operate with maximum efficiency. So while even Elon Musk admits that we’re decades away from a fully self-driving fleet, and Africa may not be thinking too hard about the consequences just yet, the chances are high that when autonomous vehicles arrive, we’ll be ready.
Parcel delivery by drone
If self-driving trucks are still a way off, the transport fleet in Africa is hardly a laggard when it comes to new technology.
New regulations covering the use of Remote Piloted Aircraft Systems — better known as drones — have been published by the South African Civil Aviation Authority, which is among the first national bodies to do so. The regulations could open the way to an even more revolutionary form of logistics than self-driving trucks: delivery drones that take parcels along pre-programmed routes via the air.
Amazon has been experimenting with drone delivery for small packages in the US, and has said that it is ready to begin deploying them as soon as federal regulations allow.
“South Africans are cynical,” says futurist and founder of Flux Trends Dion Chang, “When I talk about delivery drones they say ‘I’ll shoot it down and steal the package’. I see opportunities, though. When I talk to insurance companies I say
“have you developed a third party insurance product to cover loss of drones yet?’?”
As they stand, right now, the new regulations in South Africa don’t allow for the use of commercial drones in built-up areas, as flight spaces precluded from use include anywhere within 50m of people or buildings without special permission.
But the fact that regulations of any sort exist gives the industry hope that, given the potential for traffic-jam busting aerial delivery in our snarled cities, should a feasible drone delivery mechanism arise our civil aviation authority will be receptive to regulating it.