Monday, March 13, 2017

There will be no one in the driving seat

I am not known for my early adoption of technology. I am a recent convert to the Careem driver app, (local equivalent of Uber) several years after everyone else, I clung to my keypad Blackberry, with friends picking it up and saying: "I can't remember the last time I saw a phone keypad, wow," until various members of my family despaired and clubbed together and bought me an iPhone a couple of Christmases ago, and my iPad these days is mainly used for showing Peppa Pig to Desert Baby while I am preparing her dinner. You just have to ask Him Indoors - any introduction of new technology to our house is met with swearing, grumbling, sighing, denial, sometimes even weeping, wailing and fist thumping before eventually I reluctantly admit that, yes, it is more efficient than whatever it is replacing.

However, an event I covered for work recently got me thinking about what self-driving vehicles will mean for a place like Dubai and I found myself, surprisingly, to be in favour.

I will start by showing you this picture of a self-driving vehicle that was on show at the World Government Summit, a Dubai-based gathering designed to encourage dialogue between governments and to share knowledge on how to revolutionise the way they operate for the 21st century.

This, my friends, is a passenger drone, capable of carrying a 100kg person, plus a small suitcase, operated from a central command unit. Apparently test flights have already taken place, and the RTA (Dubai's Road and Transport Authority) plans to have them operational from July 2017.

I discussed it with Him Indoors, who, not being the happiest of flyers at the best of times, remarked "Hell. No," when I asked how he would feel about giving it a go - climbing into and flying around in what is effectively a giant, computerised remote control helicopter.

I, on the other hand, remember being aged around 10, living in a relatively rural village, reliant on my parents to drive me if I wanted to go anywhere - after school activities, friends' houses, the sweet shop, and I imagined this very thing. Fair dues, my imaginary metal flying carpet of (*cough* 25 years ago) had its own manual steering mechanism, and it was open air, because I hadn't got to the practicalities of what what wind chill would feel like flying through the UK East Midlands air in mid winter, but, this is very much one of those sci-fi dreams becoming reality for me.

Also at the summit were everyone's favourite real life Iron Man Elon Musk, founder of Space X and electric car manufacturer Tesla, and the tech disruption king and Uber CEO everyone currently loves to hate Travis Kalanick. I did not hear all of Musk's session, as I had to run off to cover another part of the event, but I found him engaging, although there were grumblings from the summit floor that he was not at all charismatic. Personally, I think the expectation of a metal suit wearing, super genius wise cracker muttering "doth mother know you wearest her drapes?" is a bit much for anyone to live up to.

Tesla's cars, he revealed, are already equipped to be fully autonomous, it is just a matter of upgrading the software when the time comes that self-driving cars are legally permitted on public roads. What I liked about Mr Musk was the fact that he raised the issue of what will happen to those who drive for a living once the world's cars are fully autonomous - a process he believes will take about 20 years once underway. His calculations are that it will leave 12-15% of the world's workforce unemployed.

Mr Kalanick was perhaps the more charismatic speaker of the two, but it all felt rather blue sky to me. There was wild talk of no traffic on the roads in cities like Delhi within seven years, thanks to Uber, with his assertion being that people will not bother owning cars, they will simply summon an Uber Pool, with self-driving technology being integral. You can't help but feel that the motivation to get self-driving cars on the road for Mr Kalanick is at least 49% from a desire for no pesky humans whining about their dwindling incomes.

But still, another argument for self-driving for the Uber CEO is one few could disagree with - reducing road deaths. Death, I think we can all agree, is A Bad Thing, with vehicles being responsible for 1.3 million deaths worldwide every year. I don't know what percentage of those deaths are due to human error at the wheel, but if Dubai is anything to go by, it's a lot of them, with examples of poor driving such as tailgating never far from the agenda when it comes to road safety. That is why I personally would be in favour of self-driving car technology on the roads. Yes, it is the rise of the machines, and another example of an over-reliance on computers and technology for our daily lives, and yes, we stand to lose the skills that have given us independence, ie, driving a vehicle, but honestly, even six years down the line, I still find the dreadful driving standards on the UAE roads hair-raising. I am used to it, in that if you were my passenger, you wouldn't know that I find it hair-raising, but tailgating, cutting up, racing away from traffic lights, ignoring road markings and the frequent near misses that go with them are the norm, not the exception.

I covered another event in Abu Dhabi not long ago, and the 200 mile round trip commute, on top of sleepless nights thanks to one of Desert Baby's night-time party phases, was, frankly speaking, dangerous. Allowing a computer, programmed only to get the passenger to their destination safely, on a road with only other computers programmed to get their passengers to their destinations safely, without the human ego-fueled speed freak lunacy of the driving experience in the UAE, can only be a good thing as far as I am concerned.

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