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Is The Road to Full Autonomy a Dead End?

  Calvin Fisher


 25 Jun, 2018

Autonomous Driving and Petrolheads

How long till we surrender the wheel to the ghost in the shell?

The irony will haunt me forever and was simply too rich to ignore at the time. I recall the moment clearly – just two years ago. Our Toyota Japan minders wouldn't let us hapless South African journos loose on the street of Tokyo at the helm of their cars, and I can almost empathise.

This frenzied metropolis that is Tokyo can be a daunting driving venue for the uninitiated, which is why all the mileage we did in the new Toyota Prius and Mirai (hydrogen fuel cell car) was conducted in safe isolation on the handling circuit of Fuji Speedway in Oyama.

Yet here we were circumnavigating Tokyo along the C1 highway in a modified Lexus GS which has been allowed to drive itself. At the national speed limit of 110kph. Artificial Intelligence 1. South African Intelligence 0.

Sounds of silence

Not the engine of course, that’s a 3.5 litre V6. I mean the silence from the driver. And again, here I don’t refer to Uesugi Satoshi, the man behind the clearly-alive steering wheel. I refer to the Lexus GS itself who (which?) has shot up an onramp onto the circular highway at pace, successfully merged itself with the traffic already in motion, and is now cruising comfortably in the left lane circa 90kph.

A gap opens in the lane to my right, the fast lane or overtaking lane – whatever you choose to call it, the GS ‘felt’ it was worth pursuing so without any provocation from us lowly humans proceeded to indicate, then glide right on into it. The GS then swelled with acceleration until it was confidently straddling the 110kph speed limit, and remained there.

I was a mixed bag, a cornucopia of emotions. I’m a sci-fi nerd, I want a robotised version of everything I own – seriously, I own a Google Mini Home and everything. This was a display so fascinating that even Doc Brown would appreciate it. Yet I’ll be honest and admit that the question ringing in my mind at this moment was “Is this thing not freaking out?” Anxiety. We never wonder what the artificial equivalent of it is, but I know that the act of checking for a safe gap can be stressful and yet this unfeeling slice of near-sentience was able to perform the task without any sort of hesitation.

As if to show off, a moment later, while sandwiched between a truck and another blind on-ramp a small utility truck ham-fistedly entered the motorway causing our GS to brake to a safe speed, manoeuvre into the clear lane to the right and effortlessly overtake the offending driver before merging back into the left lane.

If the GS had a robotic hand I think we all knew which index it would extend at this moment.

How does it work?

Take one look at the self-driving Lexus GS and it’s pretty clear that it’s not a standard car. Instead it’s been heavily augmented with bulky sensors. Also, this is a pre-programmed route, using extensive GPS knowledge, although the fundamentals are in place for it to function as simply as your navigation system. Insert destination here.

Naturally, it uses the wealth of Toyota’s existing onboard technology, the advanced recognition and predictive decision-making functions such as lane control, emergency braking and wraps it all up into its Connected Intelligence system, that’s vehicle-to-vehicle communication, now recently bolstered by vehicle-to-infrastructure communication. The latter is part of an initiative called ITS Connect, essentially sensors and cameras mounted to traffic intersections able to check your blind spots on your behalf, and equipped to communicate with your car so as to alert you if you’re about to plough into previously undetectable oncoming traffic. Sound good?

It’s already been on the market in Japan for months… As for the autonomous bit, Toyota says 2020 is wholly feasible. But I don’t buy it for one second.

And here’s why…

Legislation. Hackers. And the evil synergy between the two. Already many have died at the hands (bonnets) of Teslas and even an Uber-developed Volvo XC90, and while litigation has begun the outcome is yet to be determined. The latter being a car from a manufacturer’s own 2020 vision included zero vehicular fatalities.

Even with the technology being sound, once you add to the mix erratic pedestrians, unpredictable road users, malicious outside parties like hackers and their own motives, and of course terrible roads with little to no markings and you quickly begin to see that while Tokyo might be within reach of full autonomy (and not in two years in my humble opinion), in case you hadn’t noticed, we live in Africa, where the above (and worse) are everyday fare. It is just not on the cards.

Full disclosure – I am a consummate petrolhead above being a nerd. So while I fear losing the joy of the drive, I can also see a future where the mind-numbing tasks of peak hour traffic and long distance highway cruising can be left to The Computer, which is great.

But please, just make sure to reactivate my car and I when we reach the mountain pass, thanks.

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