Driverless cars are speeding into our everyday lives. With many popular motoring brands like Rolls-Royce and Jaguar and tech companies like Google and Apple jumping onto the driverless cars band-waggon, the future might see us not even driving out own vehicles. We asked Jeff Osborne, head of Gumtree Automative some questions to explore what the future of driverless cars could possibly look like. With decades of experience in the automobile industry, Jeff knows a thing or two about vehicles and we were eager to pick his brains on what driverless cars could do to the popular and lucrative motoring market.
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Q: Do you think, as a car enthusiast/expert, that driverless cars is a cool idea that will make it into the mainstream automobile market?
It’s more than an idea – 100 self-driving Volvos will hit the road in Sweden this year. By the time Google announced that it had invented the technology that would enable us to drive without drivers (2010), engineers for the search engine had already clocked a whopping 225 300 km on the road, without anyone knowing. Uber, BMW and Google are all putting more and more investment behind the technology, so it is inevitable that we’ll see some on the road.
Is it a cool idea? For one thing, it’s going to reduce congestion on the roads. Theoretically we won’t have to own cars but will use them like taxis via our smartphones. Roads will be able to carry more traffic but will do so more efficiently, reducing the cost of road infrastructure. And as vehicles are “smarter” and eliminate the need for human interaction, we’ll see fewer accidents. In South Africa, eliminating road accidents could save over 4 500 lives every year. There are also environmental benefits. In fact, the environmental benefit of introducing driverless cars may be bigger than electric vehicles – particularly in a country like South Africa where we are dependent on “dirty” energy sources such as coal. This is because driverless cars eliminate the need to park and along with it, the need for parking lots. The presence of these flat, dark surfaces can raise the temperate of urban areas by up to a full degree Celsius (known as the Urban Island effect). Removing massive parking lots from malls and office blocks leaves space for housing, parks and greenery. Driverless cars will also stop cities from their ever-expanding outward sprawl and subsequent pressure to keep chewing up arable land, because travel will be more efficient and commuting easier as traffic is reduced. It is going to change the shape of our cities, not just our roads.
Q: Do you see driverless cars making it into the South African automobile market?
We’ll be late adopters, due to the cost, but I believe we will see driverless cars eventually. We will have the benefit of learning from other countries’ experience.
Of course there are a few things that count in our favour. Firstly, Tesla CEO Elon Musk has roots in South Africa and we’ll be seeing the first electric Tesla’s enter the country this year. Secondly, it’s no surprise that Tesla is also heavily investing in solar power. Plugging an electric vehicle into your home is the equivalent of adding three houses to the grid. When owners install dedicated electric charging stations to charge more quickly, it can be a significant burden. A modest home draws about 3000 watts of energy at most. Some of these vehicles can draw 16 800 watts off a fast charger, which, in an electricity-poor nation such as ours, is not viable. However, what we do have an excess of is solar power. There is no reason, particularly with our rich automotive manufacturing industry, why we can’t become a significant exporter for autonomous, solar-powered vehicles in the future.
Q: As our lives become more rushed and ruled by tech and gadgets, is driving yourself and taking a leisurely drive becoming a thing of the past?
No, I don’t think so. The way we drive and own cars will change but not the experience. Even the driverless cars we currently have on the market allow the driver to take the wheel if they chose to do so.
Q: Which automobile manufacturers would you love to see go into the driverless car market?
Virtually all the large automobile manufacturers are already dabbling in the self-drive market – I’d love to see a proudly South African, solar-powered vehicle enter the market!
Q: What are some of the safety concerns you foresee in the driverless car market for consumers?
The recent fatality in the States have highlighted some of the flaws in the technology – but the safety record is certainly much more impressive than the first automobiles on the road had! Current driverless cars have not been tested in all weather conditions or all scenarios, but as with any new technology there will be flaws and unforeseen scenarios that cannot be tested for. The biggest risk is probably other cars on the road – steered by humans. The very first accident that a self-driving car was involved in was due to another driver hitting the car – humans are error-prone and often behave in a way that computers cannot fathom!
Q: What are the biggest selling points to the consumers?
It is going to save time. You can send your car off to find parking while you get on with your life, or do your work in the back of the car during your commute. If we don’t need to own cars or drive to work, cities don’t need to centralise – you can live further away from work if traffic is reduced. It’s going to be energy-efficient and lifestyle efficient.
Q: Could you explain some of the tech that goes into driverless cars please?
It varies greatly from manufacturer to manufacturer and I’m not privy to all their inside secrets, but the first systems that actually entered the market (like those pioneered by Google) were actually exactly that: systems. They were designed to fit into a standard Prius. This seems to be the way most manufacturers are going – designing self-driving technology that will be used to convert existing cars, rather than designing new models from scratch. Most systems include radar sensors around the body of the car that can sense objects nearby, while video cameras read road signs, lane markings and traffic lights by bouncing light off the surroundings. (This was the tech that caused the accident earlier this year, when the reflection bouncing off a truck “confused” the light reading). Ultrasonic sensors in the wheels assist with automatic parking and a central computer analyses the data from all these sensors to manipulate steering, speed and motion.