Jaco Van Der Merwe

By Jaco Van Der Merwe

Head of Motoring

Stella’s 5G autonomous vehicles push a car crash of an idea

“The emergence of 5G networks will enable autonomous vehicles on our roads as well as various other disruptive technologies of the 4th Industrial Revolution,” clause 1.3 of the published notice states.

A lot has been said about South Africa’s unashamed push towards a 5G network.

Communications Minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams seems hellbent on the idea on delivering 5G to South Africa, saying “these networks are critical enablers for our advancement as a country”.

As noble as her intentions might be, one particular line in the Gazetted announcement last week takes it a bit too far.

“The emergence of 5G networks will enable autonomous vehicles on our roads as well as various other disruptive technologies of the 4th Industrial Revolution,” clause 1.3 of the published notice states.

Autonomous vehicles on our roads?

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This is so far-fetched it can only mean one of two things: either Ndabeni-Abrahams is being advised by fools or she takes all South Africans having to believe that as fools. Heaven forbid it should be both.

Despite extensive testing the world over for a long time, mostly in controlled environments, the subject of autonomous driving remains a prickly pear with not one, but many thorny issues. Most of these issues won’t be resolved for a very long time in the world’s most advanced countries, let alone at the most southern tip of Africa.

In order for a self-driving car to function on public roads, it needs up-to-the-millisecond real-time information on its surrounds.

Yes, the 5G tower that was erected in your backyard against your will come in handy there, but a whole lot more is required to finally roll out a car without an actual human being behind the steering wheel.

As car manufacturers have stepped up its investment in the research and development of autonomous cars over the years, numerous mobile networks have been roped in as information is an integral part of the process. While the carmakers are developing the nitty gritty of the mechanics required to operate a car without any driver inputs like making turns, the mobile networks are tasked with gathering heaps of traffic and driver behaviour data in order to prepare the car’s “brain” for every eventuality and stay in contact with the central server required to keep everything in check.

For autonomous cars from various manufacturers to co-exist on the road, they all need to be speaking the same language first. Getting all carmakers to agree on the same mobile platform which vehicles will use to connect to a central system to share information in itself could take years to sort out. And even at such a stage when the cars are able to drive perfectly on their own and are all connected via a central server, there are numerous other issues that could delay the process.

There is the pressing moral issue of the car’s “brain” having to make an unavoidable fatal decision, which will also lead to major liability debates. For example an unseen vehicle suddenly appearing into the path of a car transporting one passenger which only has a split-second to veer to the side to avoid a fatal collision. But in the only clearing this can be done is two people standing on the side of the road. The car has to decide who’ll have a better chance of survival, the occupants of the two cars or the passengers? Who signs that off?

And speaking of actual humans, our presence behind steering wheels present a major challenge for the implementation of autonomous cars. One day when all cars are driving themselves the roads will probably be as safe as ever as there would be no scope for unexpected behaviour or ill judgement associated with human decision-making, effectively ruling out all collisions caused by driver error.

But initially, the autonomous cars would have to share the road with human drivers whose every move is impossible to accurately predict even by the smartest computer. Imagine a minibus taxi skipping a red light at full speed in the emergency lane of a major intersection in Johannesburg before making a U-turn in front of an autonomous car pulling away as his traffic light turns green. Stunned human drivers see this on a daily basis and not even they are ever fully prepared for it, spare a thought for the poor computer.

And one point of particular interest for the South African motoring landscape is that basically all autonomous cars are expected to be fully electric. All sorts of dates have been set by the world’s leading authorities as to when fossil fuel-drive cars will be banned. They range from gradual to aggressive implementation in various stages from country to country, but in general it seems that internal combustion engines’ days will be numbered by 2050. This time frame doesn’t make it economically viable for manufacturers to spend money on developing autonomous cars powered by anything other than electricity.

South Africa has been extremely slow to react to the fast-moving world of electric vehicles. In fact our government has done very little to help ease the exuberant duties on even hybrid cars throughout the more than two decades they have been available locally despite them paving the way to a cleaner environment.

Less than 2 000 electric cars have been sold in South Africa since the introduction of the Nissan Leaf and this number isn’t expected to pick up anytime soon as the few models currently on offer is too expensive for the average car buyer.

And with the amount of money government collects from fuel levies and emissions and carbon tax, it’s very hard to imagine the powers that be embracing the electrical revolution any time soon.

I’m not too sure if the Minister of Communications realises the lengthy time frame involved when making wild statements like “5G will enable autonomous vehicles on our roads”.

If she doesn’t, I’ve got news for her. Fortunately she’ll get it on her phone in a flash courtesy of those new super towers.

Jaco van der Merwe is The Citizen’s Motoring Editor.

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