Go slow in adopting driverless cars

A handout image dated Aug 20, 2016, issued by US start-up company nuTonomy, showing a nuTonomy self-driving vehicle pictured in Singapore.
A handout image dated Aug 20, 2016, issued by US start-up company nuTonomy, showing a nuTonomy self-driving vehicle pictured in Singapore.PHOTO: EPA

I can understand the concerns of individuals who have expressed hesitation and discomfort with the idea of a fully autonomous car that lacks any form of manual override ("Poll: Riding in a fully self-driving car a worry for many"; last Friday).

Automobile manufacturers such as Tesla have made great strides in implementing sophisticated and reliable self-driving systems in their vehicles.

Autonomous vehicles have been shown to outperform human drivers in reaction time and situational awareness.

Advocates have been quick to point out that many incidents involving self-driving cars are attributable to poor driving by other human motorists, and not to any fault with the autopilot system itself.

Nevertheless, this does not discount the fact that self-driving systems in automobiles are a nascent technology, not yet fully proven or widely adopted.

Design shortcomings still exist. For example, in a recent accident involving a Tesla Model S, the car's autopilot system is believed to have mistaken the unadorned side of a lorry for open sky, resulting in a collision that killed the driver.

Hence, while self-driving technology remains a viable option for future road transport solutions, it is still far too early to consider the wholesale removal of back-up controls such as the steering wheel and pedals.

Scepticism from the public, and perhaps a measure of fear, is to be expected for any new, complex and unfamiliar technology that promises revolutionary results.

Innovation is certainly important, but a breakneck pace is not always necessary. Many technological leaps, including the initial development of the motor car, were not made overnight, but over decades.

While we give time for automakers to hone their craft and allow self-driving technology to mature even further, the autopilot system should, for the time being, be kept to the role of driver aid rather than driver replacement.

Motorists would certainly benefit from features such as blind-spot sensors and lane-keeping assist, while manufacturers would be able to harvest data on how semi-autonomous systems perform in the real world.

We can achieve our driverless dreams in the long run, without sacrificing safety in the short term.

Paul Chan Poh Hoi

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 02, 2016, with the headline 'Go slow in adopting driverless cars'. Print Edition | Subscribe