Uber Debuts Self Driving Cars: What It Means For Africa

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Written by Dana Sanchez

The age of the self-driving car arrived today in Pittsburgh, U.S.A., where Uber began accepting passengers in what’s been termed a critical test for the ride-hailing service as it seeks to develop a fleet of autonomous vehicles that could someday transport passengers around crowded cities, USA Today reported.

All the major U.S. auto makers are experimenting with autonomous vehicles, but Uber, which has disruption embedded in its DNA, is the first to actually put it to test on city streets with everyday commuters.

Uber bought about two dozen Ford Fusion sedans from dealership lots and retrofitted them with light-mapping systems, radar, sensors and cameras. For now, Uber employees are staying behind the steering wheel in case the cars’ self-driving systems make mistakes. Which means they’re not actually autonomous.

Innovation is integral to Uber’s future, but driverless cars are still a couple of years away for sub-Saharan Africa, said Alon Lits, managing director of Uber sub-Saharan Africa, Tech Central reported.

In the same way that ATMs did not make bank branches obsolete, autonomous cars won’t make Uber drivers obsolete, Lits said.

“We won’t be catching drivers off guard,” Lits said at a recent FNB Franchise Summit held at Johannesburg’s Montecasino.

Uber’s success is attributed to its ability to question the status quo of doing business, Lits said. “We need to disrupt ourselves. If we don’t, someone else will.”

All the major automakers are working on various versions of autonomy, USA Today reported:

According to recent reports, Google’s self-driving car project is losing ground to rivals, and Apple is recalibrating its secret car project and conducting layoffs. Meanwhile, Tesla Motors is introducing an upgraded Autopilot software system after a deadly crash raised questions about the company’s self-driving strategy.

Ford announced in August that it plans to have a mass-market, fully autonomous car operating a ride-hailing service like Uber’s by 2021 — but with a difference. Ford wants to have an autonomous car-sharing vehicle, according to Cape Talk.

“To date many manufacturers have been talking about having autonomous vehicles. This is the first time a manufacturer has said they want to have an autonomous vehicle for ride sharing,” said Mark Smyth, editor of motor news at Business Day in a Cape Talk interview.

“What ford is talking about is a Level 4 automation (on a scale of 1-5 where 5 is full automation) — no steering wheel, no accelerator, no brake. You can use an app and the car will come and pick you up on its own steam and take you wherever you want to go.”

South Africa already has car-sharing companies, Smyth said. You can log on and arrange pick up the car and drop it off in another location. It’s becoming a much bigger thing in Europe and the U.S. — cities like New York where the majority of people don’t own a car because they have access to public transport and the famous New York taxi cabs, he said. The idea is that autonomous ride-sharing vehicles will replace short-distance trips.

“Ford thinks they can have these things running by 2021 and most experts agree by 2025 we should have these things on many city roads,” Smyth said. “From road safety perspective it’s a fantastic idea but there’s so much legislation that needs to change, so much infrastructure that need to change.”

Self-driving cars have limitations that can be dangerous and experts say that the technology is nowhere near to being ready, Washington Post reported.

While Google and General Motors are conducting trials of autonomous vehicles on public streets, Uber is the first to take everyday commuters for a ride.

Safety experts say self-driving cars have trouble seeing in bad weather, have difficulty understanding human gestures, and then there’s the human factor. People like to test and prank robots. For example, a GPS jammer, which some people keep in their trunks to block police from tracking them, will easily throw off a self-driving car’s ability to sense where it is, said Mary Cummings, director of Duke University’s Humans and Autonomy Lab, Washington Post reported.

Uber was not legally required to ask for regulators’ permission before its launch, and is also not required give data from its vehicles to regulators.

Self-driving cars have been tested on the roads of at least four U.S. states but the term “autonomous vehicles” is not mentioned in the federal motor-vehicle code. There are no safety standards or federal guidelines for testing. In Pennsylvania, regulators have proposed legislation that would allow for tests, require insurance, and report information such as cybersecurity breaches, crashes and times when an engineer had to take over the wheel.

For perspective, autonomous vehicles in Google’s fleet have driven 2 million miles as of Aug. 31, Washington Post reported. Google said its technology failed 341 times in a 15-month period through Nov. 30, 2015. The technology turned over control to a human driver 272 times. Test drivers had to take over from the robot 69 other times.

In Africa, the same issues apply. “There’s so much legislation that needs to change, so much infrastructure that needs to change,” Smyth said.

Uber is facing a tightening regulatory environment in South Africa and the rest of the world, Engineering News reported.

Cape Town impounded around 300 Uber driver vehicles between January and June because the drivers did not have metered-taxi permits.

Uber sub-Saharan Africa employs around 30 people directly, and has over than 4 000 drivers using its technology in South Africa alone.

“The next big disruption opportunity is probably self-driving vehicles,” Lits said. “If you do not think five to 10 years in advance, some company will emerge to disrupt your business model.

“We can’t ignore the rise of autonomous driving. We’d rather be the disruptor and so we are always exploring new technologies.”

It took Uber five-and- a-half years to reach 1 billion trips and six months to reach 2 billion, in June 2016. It launched in 2013 in Johannesburg, followed by Cape Town and Durban in the same year. South Africa was the first country outside the U.S. where Uber was operational in three cities simultaneously.

Uber spread to Lagos, Nigeria, in 2014, and Nairobi, Kenya, in January 2015. It has since expanded to Abuja (Nigeria), Mombasa (Kenya), Kampala (Uganda), Accra (Ghana) and Dar es Salaam (Tanzania).

“(Each) time the question has been why Uber took so long to arrive,” Lits said. “There is huge brand awareness across Africa.”