Over the last couple of years, self-driving vehicles have become somewhat of a contentious topic in South Africa. Are we ready to embrace these emerging global trends and the advancements being made in automotive technology, and if not, will we ever be ready? And, indeed, will self-driving vehicles ever actually be welcome here?
Despite the astronomically high (and growing still) rate of deadly accidents on our roads, largely due to human ineptitude, the results of several studies, surveys and polls have revealed that, in general, South Africans aren’t exactly enthusiastic about the prospect of surrendering control of their vehicles.
Though there have certainly been a fair number of deadly incidents involving self-driving vehicles, numerous studies have suggested that these vehicles do have the potential to improve overall safety on the roads, as well as traffic conditions.
Sounds like it could be a decent solution to our own problems. Of course, South Africa has a very, very far way to go, and the difficulties involved with bringing these vehicles to our country are so numerous and complicated that, realistically, it may never actually happen at all.
At least, not on any scale that would actually make any significant difference.
Let’s take a look.
South Africa has a strong driving culture, in which motorists invest a lot of time and money into their vehicles. Many South Africans not only enjoy driving, but actually love and look forward to their time at the wheel, and wouldn’t be too eager to give that up, even for the sake of safer roads.
Of course, in order for self-driving vehicles to be effective in increasing road safety, road conditions would need to be absolutely ideal, which ours certainly aren’t. Countries that are far more advanced, such as the US, may find it easier to maintain the better part of their infrastructure, but are still struggling to achieve the optimum levels required to fully support a real commitment to self-driving vehicles.
You see, infrastructure needs to be specifically designed to accommodate autonomous vehicles, which includes road markings, signs, traffic control, vehicle identification systems and so on and so forth. It has been estimated that, in order to fully accommodate self-driving vehicles, US roads will require the same level of upgrades that they did when the earliest cars began to replace horses in the 1920s.
In South Africa, this just doesn’t seem too realistic.
Then, of course, there’s the matter of power and connectivity. We’ve begun to see some small growth in the use of hybrid or fully electric vehicles, as the whole world begins to embrace the prospect of a cleaner future. Though many South Africans have been willing to get on board with this change, we still lack consistent power support throughout the country, and the last thing anybody wants is to end up stuck in the middle of the Karoo in their electric self-driving vehicle, with no way of charging it.
Likewise, experts have advised that only reliable 5G will enable the level of connectivity required for autonomous vehicles to be able to make vital split-second decisions, which could mean the difference between life and death.
We have some way to go.
As recently as last year, our Department of Transport was standing quite firm on the disallowance of operating privately-owned self-driving vehicles on South African roads. In terms of our legislation, there are no provisions that deal with these vehicles, and so, no vehicle may legally be operated without a driver.
A year later, with the first ever FIA (Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile) Conference to be held in South Africa, at Sun City, our then Minister of Transport, Blade Nzimande, and the President of the FIA, Jean Todt, took the opportunity to travel aboard the Navya Autonomous Electric Shuttle – which is the first ever autonomous, driverless, fully electric, commercially-available vehicle to be demonstrated in South Africa. The response was relatively optimistic.
More recently, our new Minister of Transport, Fikile Mbalula, speaking at the 2019 Southern African Transport Conference, raised several concerns surrounding the future of self-driving vehicles in South Africa.
There’s a lot to consider.
Law, regulation, funding, construction, infrastructure, unemployment, insurance, acceptance.
Thankfully, in just a short amount of time, massive improvements have been made in autonomous vehicle technology all around the world, and likewise to the legislations surrounding their use, and the logistics required to turn what, just a few years ago, could have been considered an unachievable dream, into reality.
China, for example, has already begun the process of building highways dedicated solely to the use of autonomous vehicles. Efforts such as these could pave the way for the rest of the world to get on board, and commit to a future free of road carnage.
In the next decade, there is little doubt that autonomous vehicles (among many other autonomous things) will disrupt and transform industry as we know it. Human error has to be removed from the roads. Time must be saved. Productivity must be increased. Business must evolve and grow. Safety must be improved. We must look to the future in order to find the solutions required at present.
These changes are inevitable, but the road is long, and hard, and the journey contains many unimaginable perils.
For countries such as South Africa, where trains and buses are frequently set on fire, and Uber drivers live in fear of being assaulted, that road only seems longer, harder, and even more perilous.
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