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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2644

Self-Driving Cars: is the hype finally punctured by ground realities?

Hemantha Abeywardena wrties from London...

Throughout 2017, the phenomenon of self-driving cars was on every tech enthusiast’s lips; they include tech giants, car manufactures, start-ups, suppliers and of course, journalists. When politicians warmed up to the concept at last, the idea got the ultimate, psychological equivalent of aerodynamic boost that in turn fired up the popular imagination, way beyond that of the faithful.

It was almost heralded as an well-oiled axle of the next Industrial Revolution, carving the shifting opinions asymmetrically in favour of pros, promising us the eventual driving experience that borders on ecstasy: arriving at the destination without moving an arm, while letting us do what we normally fancy doing while driving – drinking, eating, chatting and of course, scanning our smartphones every so often.

Since the outset of 2018, however, the trend has gone quiet, as if the gentle, near-inaudible murmur of self-driving cars had been quietened by the mighty roar of Elon Musk’s Falcon Heavy Rocket or the next-generation BFR – Big F****** Rocket. Neither the big car manufacturers nor the tech giants that invested heavily on the project, seem to be keen on talking about it or giving us an exact year, if not a date, to see a fleet of them on a road near us.

Have they adopted a collective New Year resolution not to talk about the phenomenon in 2018?

Big tech giants emulating their rivals is nothing new; we have seen it in a variety of products, ranging from smart watches to smart balloons that reach stratosphere for making the internet available for the entire world. The combination of the fear of being dwarfed by the rivals and the pressure from the shareholders, perhaps, leaves the hierarchy of these companies with very little choice to make – stay ahead of the rivals or choose to be irrelevant in a few years.

For the past two years, the automakers have been trying to sell an aspiration rather than a real product as far as self-driving cars are concerned. They knew very well that the cars are not ready for the congested roads, clogged up by human drivers; driving a car in a geo-fenced space is not the same as driving on a real road, despite the availability of data through a range of sensors and software to analyse the data and make snap decisions.

Dr Sebastian Thrun, the German-born academic turned Googler, who is dubbed the Father of Self-Driving cars, said in 2016 that there was still 11.3% probability of an autonomous car involved in a crash despite the rapidly-evolving , advanced technology – a frighteningly significant figure.

On statistical front, the self-driving cars use Baysian probabilities to recognize patterns and then make decisions. It is a process of making an estimate and not an exact science, despite it being popular in many different fields.

Since the possibility of an accident remains fairly high, the automakers will not be able to get into mass production up until the value comes down at least to a single digit. Adding insult to injury, the perception of self-driving cars being powered by electricity, is not going to attract people to them en-masse at present; the number of electric cars in use still is below 5%.

The probability of an accident and the public perception of autonomous cars being electric, are not the only factors that raise the anxiety levels of would-be customers.

Security and safety issues remain very high at the moment too. The possibility of being hacked, for instance, remains a very high concern as counter measures have not been tested enough to rule it out.

In addition, legal and regulatory issue will certainly come thick and fast as soon as the first fleet of the cars hit the road, which could potentially lead to a technological apathy or anxiety.

In this context, it’s easy to understand why the autonomous cars still remain in the hypothetical realm. The issues that bring about hindrance during testing stages are real and if they are not addressed soon, the hype of self-driving cars is running the risk of being punctured – leaving the entire concept in total disarray.

- Asian Tribune -

Self-Driving Cars: is the hype finally punctured by ground realities?
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