Driverless Cars – The Road Ahead?

Remember when it was the 90s and we dreamt of flying cars swooping over our heads? A century later, even the dream of computer-driven cars taking over the roads remains a fantasy. But let’s not lose hope. Slowly and maybe more modestly than we had imagined, driverless vehicles are no longer pipe dreams – although the pandemic did reduce the testing time on road tests. But in the last few weeks, driverless car developments have been burgeoning.

Formerly the Google self-driving project, Waymo, expanded its fully automated, driverless taxi service in Phoenix, Arizona – with no human attendants, whatsoever. Okay, maybe the idea of a driverless taxi was less debilitating when there was a human present near the steering wheel? Not just Waymo but General Motors’ driverless car company is also looking at the road ahead, without drivers in San Francisco, California.

So what is the progress on driverless cars? The last time we heard, removing human minders from the steering wheels was a strict no-no. Now, driverless cars are allowed to operate in isolated areas. That means companies aren’t entirely trusting of an automobile to steer itself to glory. Why is that?

One of the biggest challenges faced by the industry comes with training the machine to learn to swerve around newer obstacles. As humans, unless we are intoxicated or distracted, we are equipped to handle circumstances on the road that we have never seen before. Let’s say a group of unsupervised buffalos (not an uncommon sight in India) decide to ‘enter the scene’. The machine will be able to detect the presence of obstacles (buffalos) but cannot devise solutions. This is because the machine cannot tell the difference between unsupervised buffalos and a flock of wild turkeys, and therefore does not have a readymade solution. But above all, the machine will not be able to act impromptu depending on the situation. That makes it a sticky situation because when you’re on the road, presence of mind is very important – to honk or to shoo away animals, without freezing on the spot. There are a billion other scenarios like this that are individually uncommon but collectively make self-driving cars a reliable mode of transport. And there is little room to err… when lives are at stake.

Voyage, a driverless car company is looking at revamping its customized computer-piloted taxis to operate without a backup driver. And these vehicles operate only in two retirement communities – this makes it easier for the machine to understand the map and operate with lesser surprises. Lower speeds, relatively understandable terrain conditions and small geography that Voyage computer systems have mapped in advance remove some of the surprise complications and risk. And for seniors, access to door-to-door car service at their fingertips can materially improve their lives.

You’d think smaller space, easier to operate – But even then, Voyage deals with complexities that can really boggle the mind. The cars have compound backup systems that prevent riders from grabbing the steering wheel or pressing the accelerator while the car is in self-driving mode – you don’t want to imagine what that would result in. Above and all, Voyage also has people standing by who can take over the driverless cars remotely if they’re needed.

So if your question is, are driverless cars going to hit the roads in large numbers everywhere? As much as we want to say yes, we have definitely misjudged the technology’s difficulty. The progress, on the other hand, will definitely accelerate. So we are all crossing our fingers!