The introduction of self-driving cars and an autonomous public transportation system in South Africa is likely to be delayed due to the poor state of the country's infrastructure. Technology companies and the world's leading car manufacturers are continuing to invest their resources into developing self-driving cars and platforms into a technology that will transform the automotive industry.
However, according to Toyota South Africa CEO Andrew Kirby, South Africa is likely to be left behind in the global race to introduce and deploy autonomous vehicles. Whilst it's important to acknowledge every market that is actively pursuing self-driving technology faces their own unique obstacles and challenges, South Africa's major issue is the poor condition of its roads. Kirby has called for the government to invest heavily in infrastructure in an effort to improve the situation.
Kirby said: "We have a lot of cars in South Africa already at autonomous level one and two, where they can steer themselves, keep in a lane and accelerate and brake in an emergency situation - but when you get past that you need a lot of investment in infrastructure."
Kirby highlighted that in order to successfully deploy autonomous vehicles and introduce them onto South African roads you require real-time 3D mapping and road infrastructure like clear road markings that can communicate with vehicles, and vehicles able to communicate with each other. However, Kirby was resigned to the fact that this will not be a possibility in the country for years to come.
Kirby added, "That type of infrastructure is not going to be available in South Africa for many years to come. The experience of full autonomy is not going to be practical in South Africa. Manufacturers all have the technology and the issue is that the infrastructure needs to be in place to utilize it."
In order to determine a common terminology for autonomous vehicles, SAE international has developed six levels of automation which range from zero to five. At level five the vehicles are controlled by an automated driving system that manages all aspects related to driving. At the lower levels there is a requirement for the driver to be involved in the driving process.
The key objective for those pursuing self-driving technology is safety. KPMG released a report into autonomous vehicles last year and claimed that fatal road accidents could be reduced by 80% by 2040. The Toyota CEO added that while South Africa may not yet be in a position to experience the full benefits of autonomy, the safety technology being implemented into vehicles will ultimately improve the safety of the cars.
One of the biggest challenges faced with those tasked with developing autonomous vehicles is the ethical dilemma in relation to how the system reacts when an accident is imminent. General Manager of Volkswagen South Africa Matt Gennrich has expressed his reservations in relation to this dilemma. He said, "If you are in your car and a truck is veering towards you, on your right is a woman with a child and on your left an old man is driving, how you respond is your decision as a person. In an autonomous car, who will be responsible?"
The Volkswagen GM did concede that he expects to see these issues ironed out in the near future - and that self-driving cars would become a regular feature on roads all over the world. However, he did stress that this would not materialize in South Africa for a significant period of time.