In good hands: an opinion on self-driving cars

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Nov 28, 2017

I’ll never forget my first experience with an autonomous vehicle.

As we were pulling into a carpark, my friend reached down to the gearshift panel and pressed a button, then put the car into reverse.  Before I could say anything, he simply let go of the steering wheel, and gently placed a foot on the accelerator.

The car, slowly but steadily, inched its way into the empty lot. I was flabbergasted to see the steering wheel turn by itself, moved only by what seemed to be a pair of invisible hands.

That was the first time the reality of self-driving technology dawned upon me.

The Audi Q7 is one of Audi’s cars that comes with a parking assist feature. Photo: Audi

It’s only been a few years since then, but autonomous vehicle technology has come such a long way. Parking assist technology, so revolutionary then, is now commonplace among most production vehicles. The next step is for autonomous vehicle technology, otherwise known as piloted driving technology, to proliferate amongst production vehicles.

With the announcement of the Audi A8 in July this year, this is now one step closer to being a reality. Audi has become the first carmaker to offer Level 3 autonomous capability to the mainstream. Soon enough, self-driving cars will become the new normal.

It may seem like a bold claim to make, but it’s true. The technology is here — and it works. One needs only to look at Audi ambassadors Dick Lee and Tay Ping Hui testing out the Audi A7 prototype “Jack” for proof.

Their initial hesitance is palpable, as they both display obvious reluctance to take their hands off the wheel.

But eventually, both of them are seen completely astonished, as I was with my friend’s car, with Jack’s ability to effortlessly speed up, slow down, and change lanes, all without a single human input. Even the sceptical Ping Hui convinces himself to take his hands off the wheel to enjoy some French fries.

“Nothing to do, just relax,” quips Dick, as Jack takes him down the highway. “It’s wonderful.”

Still, autonomous vehicles will have their doubters. Upon seeing nuTonomy’s autonomous prototypes cruising slowly down the street in the one-north area, I see some friends reflexively take a step back from the kerb, even though a pair of staff members is in the vehicle as an added security measure.

“Those things really creep me out,” one of my friends said once, as we watched it buzz past. “I don’t know if I’m comfortable with my car driving me instead of me driving it.”

If only they knew that autonomous vehicles are, in fact, significantly safer than manned vehicles. Statistics from data.gov.sg show that more than 94 per cent of 6,888 traffic accidents in 2016 were caused by driver error.

A fully autonomous vehicle would be able to react faster than a human under all circumstances The Audi A8 is packed full of cutting-edge safety features, such as a full array of 12 ultrasonic sensors for close-range information, four mid-range radar sensors, and a long-range radar in front. Four 360-degree cameras constantly monitor traffic and the environment in real time. The A8’s artificial intelligence then assesses the data streams from all these sources to determine if the road conditions are sufficiently safe for driving.

Audi’s autonomous vehicles are receive a constant flow of information from their sensors, making them potentially safer than human drivers. Photo: Audi

“[These sensors] also know how far [an obstacle is] from the car,” said Dr Marcelo H. Ang Jr, an associate professor at the National University of Singapore’s Campus for Research Excellence and Technological Enterprise (Create). “That’s even better than a human, right?”

Autonomous vehicles are also better-behaved than the average human driver.

“Our vehicles won’t fall asleep, they won’t be aggressive,” says Dr Miklos Kiss, Head of Predevelopment at Audi AG’s Driver Assistance Systems. “They will do a pretty good job.”

“A computer driving a car — it doesn’t get emotional, it doesn’t get tired,” agrees Dr Ang. “If another car overtakes it, it doesn’t get angry.”

And this is just what’s available to us today. Upcoming concept cars like Audi’s Elaine and Aicon, which are capable of Level 4 and Level 5 autonomy respectively, will have safety tech which vastly outstrips that which is possible today.

Still, the rate of adoption of self-driving vehicles depends heavily on how willing legislators are to accept self-driving vehicles. Most recently, in February this year, the Land Transport Authority (LTA) amended the Road Traffic Act to allow autonomous vehicles on the roads in certain areas, like the one-north area mentioned earlier.

The Audi A7 Sportback prototype “Jack” has a piloted driving function that works under certain conditions, but the driver must be ready to take over at a moment’s notice. Photo: Audi

Currently, autonomous vehicles on trial and their operators are exempt from existing legislation, so long as they receive liability insurance, or place a security deposit with the LTA.

Autonomous vehicles also have to pass a safety assessment before they are allowed on the roads.

It remains to be seen how legislation will continue to evolve to adapt to the public’s rapidly-growing interest in autonomous vehicles. Who knows what the coming years will hold for the development of cars and our cities? I don’t know, but I’m excited—and you should be too.