Photo: Reuters
Photo: Reuters

OPINION: Enabling self-driving cars is a matter of life or death

By Wesley Diphiko Time of article published Apr 26, 2019

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CAPE TOWN - People died over the last few days on South African roads. On average 14 000 people die annually on South African roads. During the 2019 Easter period no-one could blame the traffic cops, as they were visibly present.

No one can blame only taxi drivers for the war zone-like situation on South African roads.

Minister of Transport Bonginkosi (Blade) Nzimande refers to them as among the best roads in the world.

The sad reality is that drivers on South African roads may be the worst in the world, and the main reason for the high rate of road accidents.

While people are dying because of bad drivers, South African-born entrepreneur Elon Musk has unveiled a computer chip that might replace human drivers altogether.

The chip is called, for now, a “full self-driving computer”, or FSD computer. It is a high-performance, special-purpose chip built solely with autonomy and safety in mind.

This is an important step for self-driving cars and it brings us closer to a future in which cars will drive themselves.

Meanwhile, China, South Africa’s counterpart in the BRICS nations, is also mapping the way forward for fully automated cars.

China is in the process of building dedicated highways for self-driving cars.

A new 100km stretch of freeway will have two lanes dedicated to autonomous vehicles.

According to recent media reports, the new highway is expected to be one of many that will run between Beijing and the Xiong’an New Area in Hebei province.

The road-building project undertaken by the Chinese is one of the best efforts to jump-start functional and useful automated vehicles.

These key technological developments should inspire transport planners, policymakers and leaders to embrace a future where cars will drive themselves to deal with road carnage.

It’s time to work towards removing the driver behind the steering wheel and allowing the computer to take charge. The aviation industry has embraced automation for safety reasons, and the current situation on roads calls for the road transport sector to embrace automation.

In view of the high accident rate on South African roads, swift action should be taken in this regard. This is not a matter that needs long-lasting debates, but is one that requires action in the form of investments.

Uber has dedicated billions toward self-driving cars to take care of driver costs. South Africa has far better reasons to want to invest in the self-driving industry than Uber.

Enabling self-driving cars in South Africa is a matter of life or death.

The recommendation for self-driving cars in South Africa may sound far-fetched but it’s necessary and feasible. What is necessary is a bold vision and implementation.

The road to self-driving will not be easy. It will require complete mapping of local roads and commitment to build roads for automated cars. As futuristic as this may sound it is necessary to bring an end to road carnage.

In the meanwhile, while drivers are still behind the steering wheel, there’s a need for nationwide data collection about driver behaviour.

Such data should be used to incentivise good driving behaviour.

* The Infonomist will host The Future of Driving forum to discuss self-driving together with key decision-makers in the road transport sector.

Wesley Diphoko is the Editor-In-Chief of The Infonomist. He founded Kaya Labs, a tech platform dedicated to the development of technologists from previously disadvantaged communities. He serves as chair of the IEEE Open Data Initiative. You can follow him on Twitter via @WesleyDiphoko


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