Several car companies like Ford, GM, Tesla, Toyota, Volkswagen, Volvo and others are already trying out several technologies for autonomous cars

The idea of a driverless car is rather scary, but the ongoing revolution in electronics is achieving many amazing things. A robot on an automotive manufacturing line is, for example, many times faster and more efficient than a hundred workers, and they do not make mistakes. They also don’t need medical care, welfare benefits and they never go on strike. Modern robots can even do highly sensitive things like playing music or intelligent things like playing chess.

Uber and Ola are huge taxi companies but they own very few cars. However their highly sophisticated systems of fleet management and GPS based navigation through city traffic make them so easily available and inexpensive that they have revolutionised personal transportation in nearly a thousand major towns worldwide, with the result that many people don’t need to keep a car any longer. A small car with a driver can however carry 3 passengers and if the driver is eliminated it will increase its passenger capacity by 25 per cent. That’s enough to greatly improve a taxi’s earning power or profitability. Human error is the biggest cause of accidents, so a tiny robot hidden somewhere in a car may actually be a lot safer than a mortal human driver who can get tired, drunk or distracted by their mobile or a pretty girl on the road.

Over the past decade most of automotive engineering has been driven by electronics that not only make engine management more efficient but also make suspensions and brakes safer. They play a huge role in climate control, lighting and security to make a car easier to drive, reliable and efficient. Many modern cars not only have sensors to scan the road ahead but can also spot cars, pedestrians and other hazards approaching from behind or from their sides. They warn the driver and are programmed to begin safety measures such as slowing the car down or setting off hazard warnings. Many cars are already programmed to be able to park themselves in small spaces.

All these gadgets will however make autonomous cars more expensive so they will mainly be used by commercial cars that travel long distances every year. But innovative new technologies like automatic gears, power steering, power windows, keyless entry and push-button start became popular despite their higher costs. Technologies can also monitor the driver, and a camera monitoring the driver’s eyes can spot sleepiness or drunken behaviour.

Several car companies like Ford, GM, Tesla, Toyota, Volkswagen, Volvo and others are already trying out several technologies for autonomous cars. A fleet of self-driving Google cars have so far clocked up more than 300,000 miles without an accident. The road safety authorities in USA, Germany, Japan and elsewhere are not however fully convinced. The first death in an autonomous car occurred in May this year according to the US road safety administration. A man was killed after his Tesla, operating in Autopilot mode, hit an articulated lorry. Joshua Brown was driving along a Florida highway in a Tesla Model S that had been switched to Autopilot mode, when a lorry drove onto the highway from a cross street. His system failed to distinguish the white truck against a brightly lit sky so the self-driving system failed to spot the danger and apply the brakes in time. It will take some time before autonomous cars are commercialised but most auto experts believe that it will happen quite soon.

SAE (Society of Automotive Engineers) has proposed a system of classifying autonomous vehicles listing features like Lane Keeping Assistance, Parking Assistance, Adaptive Cruise Control, etc. NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) of USA has also devised a classification system. The US army is also experimenting with self-driving trucks and other vehicles. The safety systems will be based on a mapping of the probable traffic conditions in any city and one wonders whether the designers will be able to anticipate chaotic conditions on the streets of cities in the developing world with their badly regulated mixed traffic of cars, buses, pedestrians, motorcycles, cycles, animals and other hazards.

—The author is the region’s most celebrated automobile columnist