As we race to a future of self-driving cars, many argue it won’t happen in South Africa. But, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK, it’s already here.
The future of the automobile is here. You only need look in your rear-view mirror. There’s a good chance that one of those cars you see is an Audi or a Subaru or a Ford or a BMW that has an assisted driving feature activated.
That means, on a current Audi A5, a “lane assist” feature that alerts drivers when they are veering over lane demarcations, “active lane assist” that steers the vehicle back into a lane when it detects the car moving over the lines, and “side assist” that detects vehicles coming up in the next lane when the driver signals a lane change – even forcing the car back into its own lane.
In the new Land Rover Discovery, an Autonomous Emergency Braking system spots potential collisions and applies brakes automatically if an accident is anticipated. It has a form of self-driving as well, with an off-road feature called All-Terrain Progress Control, which allows the driver to hand control over to the vehicle when the terrain is particularly difficult. The driver steers while the ATPC takes over all other functions, including braking, applying torque to the wheels, individually, for maximum traction, and controlling the speed.
In the Subaru XV, EyeSight Driver Assist Technology comprises two colour cameras positioned near the rear-view mirror. They monitor traffic movement, and feed the information to an artificial intelligence systems that fine tunes cruise control automatically and keeps an eye on unintended lane changes. It also features Pre-Collision Braking, in effect watching for cars that brake suddenly in front or – that perennial South African road hazard – cars cutting in dangerously.
The new Ford Fusion features the whole bang-shoot of automated safety, from Adapative Cruise Control that slows the car if it detects traffic ahead, to automated perpendicular parking and park-out assist for getting out of tight spots. Cross-Traffic Alert is like having a built-in assistant to warn of approaching traffic when a car is backing out of a driveway or parking spot.
The cherry on top is Pre-Collision Assist with Pedestrian Detection, which warns of potential collisions with both cars and pedestrians. The brakes instantly “precharge” and increase sensitivity for full responsiveness when the brakes are applied – which happens automatically if the driver doesn’t respond to the alarm.
The Volvo CX90 features all of the above, along with City Safety, designed to avoid collisions in slow-moving, stop-and-go city traffic. It brakes automatically, avoiding or helping to reduce the effects of a collision.
Every one of the above is a car I’ve tested on the South African roads. In the automobile industry, science fiction is not fiction anymore.
It’s not a great leap for such features to evolve to fully automated driving as well. The big catch, aside from the law, is that none of them are cheap, and none are aimed at the mass market. Yet.
In cars, future shock is no longer about how much of driving can be automated. It’s about how much of that automation can be built into mass-market cars.
The biggest shock comes when the high-end features like reverse cameras suddenly appear in entry-level cars. The nippy little Ford Fiesta ST2000 may not be a beginner car, but it points the way. It already features rear-view colour cameras for safer reversing, and AvanceTrac, which automatically applies brakes and adjusts engine torque when it detects wheelslip.
The true breakthrough, for the ordinary driver, will come when standard features in all cars include lane-assist and park-assist, as well as the predictive braking systems appearing in the high-end vehicles. That will gradually prepare drivers for their next upgrade: the self-driving vehicle, or at least a significant turn of the wheel closer to that dream.
Laws will have to evolve to allow for many of these changes, but that is already beginning, says Trevor Hill, Head of Audi South Africa.
“Germany will soon change its legislation, then the USA, probably in parallel, and then the rest of the world will follow,” he says. “But you have to have infrastructure, you have to have lines in the road. In Polokwane right now, an autonomous vehicle would end up in the bush. The sensors in the car will need to read the road markings, as well the traffic.
“But this will all happen in time. Once we get this technology into South Africa, we can start to explain to authorities what the benefits are. This will save lives. If you could put the current predictive braking features on trucks and taxis, you would save a lot of lives. But then everyone has to do it, because if one car brakes suddenly and others don’t, you have a problem.
“There are real safety benefits, though. Once costs come down and it becomes standard, most cars will get it. The technology is there; you just have to put it in the cars.”
The current Audi A5, already on South African roads, is a car of the future, available today, and does not need any change in law to be allowed on the roads. Like the Land Rover Discovery and Ford Fusion, it can detect a collision about to happen, with a technology called “pre sense”, which applies brakes automatically. That is just the beginning.
The new Audi A8, revealed in Barcelona a few months ago and due to arrive in South Africa next year, has built in numerous new features that also improve both autonomy and safety, without flouting any laws.
It features a parking space finder, similar to that of the Ford Fusion, which scans for open parking spaces. Chances are that the next model will drive itself to and from parking spaces after it drops you off at the front door of a building. It’s safety features are right out of the future.
“If the car is about to be hit from the side, it will first try to avoid accident. But, if it is unavoidable, the side of the car lifts 8cm so that it exposes the underside of car and distributes the impact, protecting passengers from the direct impact. An artificial intelligence active suspension means electronic actuators on the wheels smooths out potholes, bumps, and rough surfaces.”
It’s not only about safety and comfort, however. Hill presents a fascinating vision for the role of the self-driving car: “With autonomous driving, we want to create a 25th hour for the customer. The hour spent driving can become productive time in the car, in effect giving you an extra hour to get things done.”
The promised delivery date for autonomous vehicles, from most manufacturers, is 2021. It cannot come a day too soon.
- Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter on @art2gee and on YouTube.
Mini embraces innovation
Mini has launched its 2018 models with customisable interior features and major technology upgrades, writes BRYAN TURNER.
Mini has never been known as a high-tech car, due to its small form factor being the differentiator. But now the well-known brand has received a long-awaited strategy overhaul, bringing with it a new technology focus. Even the Mini logo underwent a subtle redesign, opting to use negative space to show the gaps in the wings of the logo instead of a raised metal look. This forms part of the new “MINImalism” strategy.
Mini’s strategy for now and the foreseeable future is to increase automation in its cars.
Connected Drive, pioneered by BMW, allows for an intelligent connection between the car and smartphone. This enables one to check the fuel level, heat the interior and start the onboard navigation, all without having to be near the car, from a smartphone. When one is in the car, calendar events with location data can trigger the onboard navigation to calculate ETAs and time in traffic, offset on real-time data collected through the smartphone’s Internet connection.
We tested it with both the Mini Connected Drive and BMW Connected Drive apps, and both interfaced well with the car. Surprisingly, the BMW Connected Drive app seemed to interface slightly better with the Mini than the Mini Connected Drive app.
While the app is recommended, it’s not required, because the car integrates excellently with Bluetooth-enabled devices. iPhone users are in luck, because the entertainment system includes CarPlay, Apple’s simplified connected car interface software. This allows for music, maps and other CarPlay-enabled apps to be shown directly on the car’s touchscreen ,as they do on the iPhone, save some text-sizing adjustments.
Pairing the iPhone is as easy as holding down a button on the steering wheel and tapping the car when it appears in the built-in CarPlay menu on the iPhone. No app download is required.
MINImalism runs through the car’s technology. The Mini’s 6.5-inch touch screen control panel shows an image of the car with layman’s terms of what the internal systems are doing, keeping to minimalist design patterns. The new Mini Coopers come standard with a Harman/Kardon 12-speaker setup, which features in the Mini Connected Drive.
The steering wheel is redesigned, now featuring more buttons to help keep one’s hands on the wheel. The left side of the wheel features cruise control buttons, while volume and call controls are located on the right side. This bears a strong resemblance to the BMW configuration, featuring similarly placed steering controls.
With all the Mini’s customisations, the company invites consumers to take it further with optional extra.s Mini Yours Customised (yours-customised.mini) is a web platform where one can choose custom side scuttles, custom cockpit facia, customised LED door stills and even a customised door projection light. These parts are either 3D-printed or laser-cut, depending on the material, to the specification outlined on the web app.
As optional extras, one can opt for a wireless charger in the armrest compartment and secondary front USB port for both the driver and front passenger, to charge their phones simultaneously. A SIM card connecting to the 4G/LTE network can be fitted directly into the car, allowing for use of Mini Teleservices and Intelligent Emergency Calling, with automatic vehicle location reporting. The Mini Find Mate is an extra service that uses wireless tags to track items from the car’s onboard system or from the Mini Connected Drive app. This tag can be attached to frequently misplaced items or travel items, like backpacks, suitcases and briefcases.
Future Minis are expected to be electric by 2019 in Europe and are expected to arrive in South Africa in mid-2020. This seems realistic, considering that the BMW i3 forms part of the same group.
Overall, the Mini range has received a subtle yet effective cosmetic and technology overhaul, delivering loads of functionality in a minimalist package.
Why SA needs connected taxis
Traffic across South Africa continues to be a headache and digital acceleration may just be the answer in mitigating daily congestion, says CLAYTON NAIDOO, General Manager, Sub-Saharan Africa, Cisco.
Creating smart cities and digital workplaces means connecting infrastructure and digitizing transport systems, particularly in the taxi industry. Can you imagine what South Africa roads would looks like in 10-years-time, if taxis were connected?
According to Statistics SA’s 2013 Household Survey, taxi operators transport over 15 million commuters daily. Around 200,000 minibus taxis, across 2 600 taxi ranks, provide the main mode of transport for 50% of SA’s population earning less than R3 000 per month.
The impact of the taxi industry on the daily lives of South Africans is huge, research by Transaction Capital, a financial services provider in the taxi industry revealed. An estimated 70% of people who attend educational institutions make use of taxis, 69% of all South African households use taxis in their transport mix, and a staggering 68% of all public transport trips to work are in taxis. Plus, minibus taxis reach remote places other forms of public transport don’t – the average South African lives within a 5-minute walk of a minibus taxi.
Sadly, the industry is still faced with challenges when it comes to road congestion, accidents and safety, and with drivers often forced by financial needs to work long hours. But a future where taxis can operate efficiently and profitably, while improving safety and providing a more convenient customer and employee experience, is possible. But it requires a digital business transformation.
Our cities need to start connecting infrastructure and piloting these digital experiences now. Globally, there will be 380 million connected vehicles on the roads by 2020, but that is only half the battle. The first step toward making the frictionless commute a reality is for local governments to begin investing in technology architectures and physical infrastructure to accelerate connected transportation systems and create workplace innovation.
On the strategic side, transportation officials can begin by identifying best practice. It is best to first pinpoint a problem that is unique to a city or region. For example, a city with notorious traffic congestion might want to start integrating smart sensors on roadways to alert drivers and connected vehicles in real-time of potential hazards, and possibly prevent accidents before they happen.
How would that look in practice? Let’s take the example of Sipho Ngwenya, a fictional character, from Zola in Soweto, one of the 600 000 people employed in the industry.
He gets up at 4am everyday to get to the taxi rank where he parks his mini bus overnight. Sipho hopes to be one of the first drivers there to ensure he fills his taxi with commuters, who travel to the northern suburbs of Johannesburg for work and school.
The earlier he starts transporting people, the better chance he has of generating the daily “rental fee” he pays his boss – the owner of the minibus. If Sipho is even 10 minutes late, the queue of people at the rank may have halved. If his taxi is the last one in the queue, it may not fill up, and he may need to drive around the block to find more commuters. The delay means longer hours for him, his conductor-cum-assistant (guardjie) will have to spend more time calculating and collecting fares, and it will increase his costs – he’ll spend more money on fuel.
Fast forward six-months later, when the Joburg metro area would have implemented the Cisco Connected Mass Transit technology solution to connect the taxi industry. Sipho’s alarm goes off at 4am. He grabs his phone and logs onto the Cisco platform before he jumps out of bed: the weather is clear but there’s been an accident overnight on his route to the rank – he’ll have to take a detour. He checks once again just as he leaves home, and sees that he has time to grab breakfast on his way.
He is the first driver to arrive at the rank that morning – stress-free and ready to start. The rest of the minibuses are stuck behind the accident. He loads commuters and manages to get all of them to their destinations 10 minutes early, by checking the best routes. Payments are no longer collected in person – there is now an easy mobile payment option that customers love, especially the young ones. And Sipho no longer needs to search for commuters – they stop his minibus on the road because it is marked as a ‘connected minibus’. This is a smart workplace.
These digital solutions are real and available to the SA taxi world. There are some caveats, though: Cisco’s international experience shows that these solutions are best implemented alongside awareness campaigns for commuters and government incentives to drive adoption, as well as ensuring the regulatory environment is conducive. Luckily, technology itself isn’t too much of a problem: the solutions work with existing IT systems local governments have installed.
Imagine South Africa in a decade. Now imagine a South Africa where traffic congestion is a thing of the past.