Autonomous vehicle technology is evolving rapidly, and cities around the world are embracing the concept with open arms. Dubai recently launched its first driverless bus service, while Singapore has became the first nation in the world to implement driverless taxis. As the world moves forward and adopts technology that no longer involves human interference, carmakers must face the difficult question of how safe their product really is before it's ready to move people on highways and city streets.
The Middle East's urban centre, Dubai, is renowned for its early adoption of intelligent technology infrastructure. On September 2, the city unveiled its first driverless bus service, launching a month-long trial period for the electric vehicle with a view to expanding it across the futuristic Gulf city state. The 10-seat vehicle made its first trip along a 700-metre stretch of road in downtown Dubai. It was developed jointly by French group Easy Mile and Dubai-based Omnix, and is powered by an electric motor which can reach speeds of 40 kilometers per hour.
The test run was "the first and very important stage in our efforts to introduce this type of vehicle into Dubai's transport network," the Road Transport Authority (RTA) told AFP. The RTA's director general, Mattar al-Tayer, said it aims to have a quarter of all Dubai transport automated by 2030.
But Dubai certainly isn't the only place where the idea of autonomous vehicles is being cooked up. Major corporations like Google, Audi, and Mercedes-Benz are testing vehicles in a number of cities around the world to demonstrate that autonomous vehicles are safer to use than vehicles driven by humans. In order for autonomous vehicles to go mainstream, these leading firms must determine the level of risk acceptable to both government regulators and a potentially skeptical public.
Human mistakes in driving are responsible for 94 percent of the 33,000 traffic fatalities each year, according to government statistics. Autonomous vehicles don't run the risk of drivers getting drowsy, distracted, or worse drunk behind the wheel. In fact, statistics show that autonomous vehicles would eliminate majority of the common mistakes associated with driving fatalities, and save an estimated 31,000 lives a year.
In late August, Singapore became the first nation in the world to put this theory into practice. nuTonomy, an MIT-spin-off technology start-up that makes software to build self-driving cars, beat Uber in the race to introduce self-driving cars to the roads in the city state. The company implanted six cars in Singapore that can autonomously pick up passengers and deliver them to their desired destination, as part of a pilot project.
"We face constraints in land and manpower," Singapore's permanent secretary for transport, Pang Kin Keong, told the Associated Press. "We want to take advantage of self-driving technology to overcome such constraints, and in particular to introduce new mobility concepts which could bring about transformational improvements to public transport in Singapore."
But for all the excitement surrounding the introduction of autonomous taxis in Singapore, make no mistake that cars driving themselves can make mistakes. For instance, earlier this year, a self-driving car developed by Google caused its first crash on February 14, when it changed lanes and put itself in the path of an oncoming bus.
In an accident report filed with the Californian DMV on February 23, Google wrote that its autonomous vehicle, a Lexus SUV, was self-driving down El Camino Real in Mountain View, when it veered to the far right lane to make a right turn onto Castro Street, but stopped when it detected sand bags placed around a storm drain blocking its path. The vehicle moved to avoid the sandbags which caused the crash, according to the report.
"After a few cars had passed, the Google AV began to proceed back into the center of the lane to pass the sand bags," the report reads. "A public transit bus was approaching from behind. The Google AV test driver saw the bus approaching in the left side mirror, but believed the bus would stop or slow to allow the Google AV to continue. Approximately three seconds later, as the Google AV was reentering the center of the lane, it made contact with the side of the bus."
Google has been testing a fleet of 56 autonomous vehicles on the streets of Mountain View, California; Austin, Texas; and Kirkland, Washington. Collectively, the cars have driven themselves almost 1.5 million miles, and always have a passenger present as back-up in the driver seat. Other companies such as Nissan, Uber, and software firm Cruise Automation are also testing autonomous vehicles on public roads.
A blog post in January by Chris Urmson, head of Google's self-driving car program, said that during the past two years of testing, back-up drivers only had to take control of their vehicle 13 times when the car was heading towards a potential collision. The blog noted that human intervention is dropping and he expects it to keep doing so. Google has since updated its autonomous software after the crash earlier this year. The company reportedly wants to make autonomous cars available to the public by around the end of 2019.
Ride-hailing app Uber announced its venture into driverless vehicle technology and began testing in May this year and later confirmed in August that it would begin allowing customers to hail self-driving cars on the streets of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The city's mayor, William Peduto, said Uber's chief executive Travis Kalanick reached out to him about a year ago with the proposal.
"We agreed with them about six months ago to let them take autonomous vehicles onto our streets. We're also working with them to expand their operations and research facilities," the Mayor told The Washington Post. "There is no formal agreement. They are permitted under existing state law to operate the vehicles with a licensed human driver. We required that Uber coordinate with the traffic division of our police bureau to ensure public safety. They assume all the risk."
The autonomous trend has also begun in Europe, where in the eastern French city of Lyon, it was announced on September 2 that driverless minibuses had begun taking passengers during the weekend as part of a year-long experiment that officials called a "world first". The two electric vehicles, fitted with high-tech equipment including laser sensors, stereo vision and GPS, can ferry around 15 passengers at a top speed of 20 kilometers an hour (12 mph). The initial route in the heart of the city lasts 10 minutes and includes five stops, AFP reported.
The French firm Navya manufactured the autonomous minibuses costing 200,000 euros ($225,000) a piece. The technology has already been tested in other French cities, as well as in Sion, Switzerland, but without any passengers. Until more autonomous vehicle testing has been completed, the jury is out on whether or not we should be worried by the implementation of autonomous vehicles in major cities around the world.
According to nuTonomy's COO Doug Park, fleets of autonomous taxis could reduce the number of cars on the streets of Singapore from 900,000 to 300,000, but he didn't specify exactly how that will pan out."When you are able to take that many cars off the road, it creates a lot of possibilities," Park said. "You can create smaller roads, and you can create much smaller car parks. I think it will change how people interact with the city going forward."
Steve Adler, Mayor of Austin, Texas, agrees with this view, saying Google cars being tested in his city haven't caused any crashes, and he believes they bring safety benefits. But a skeptic such as Colby Huff, a radio host from Springfield, Illinois, says he would never ride in an autonomous vehicle. "There's just too much that can go wrong in something that weighs a ton or so," he says. "It's not worth my family's safety to trust a machine."