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Is South Africa getting left behind?

New technology is advancing at a rapid rate but we live in an automotive time-warp here in SA, says David Furlonger
Our fuel quality is generations out of date. Many of the vehicles on our roads were in their prime 15-20 years ago. As for our driving habits, they come from a century ago, when there were almost no motor vehicles on the road and drivers didn’t have to worry about other traffic. Many of today’s SA drivers appear oblivious to what’s going on around them.
We’re also not very fond of new technology. Hybrid vehicles – those powered by a combination of petrol and electricity – may be big business in the rest of the world but in SA, almost no one’s interested. Ditto pure electric vehicles, or EVs.
Given this bubble, it’s perhaps not surprising that, while they follow latest automotive technology trends with interest, many people here consider them largely irrelevant to SA. They feel they might as well be reading science fiction.
The trouble with science fiction is that it has a habit of coming true. Much as we think that new technologies are decades away from SA, many of them will make their way here before we know it.
Take flying cars. The Japanese government, no less, is bringing together 21 partners – including Uber, Boeing, Airbus and Japan Airlines – in the hope of integrating flying cars into its public transport system.
A number of private companies are testing flying cars and taxis – there’s an experimental service in New Zealand, and Uber plans to open a Paris hub by 2023 – but this is thought to be the first time a government has declared its intention to bring the concept into the transport mainstream.
While it leaves the ‘how’ to the experts, the Japanese government says its contribution will be ‘to provide appropriate support to help realise the concept of flying cars, such as creation of acceptable rules’.
Japan is already proving a leader in driverless, autonomous driving. Tokyo hopes to provide driverless taxis in time for the 2022 summer Olympics and has been running a pilot project between the central railway station and a popular city entertainment district. For now, cabs along the fixed 5.3km route must carry a driver in case of emergency, but planners hope to start changing that soon.
The Olympics deadline gives Japan a fixed start date. In many cases, however, motor and technology companies are rethinking their autonomous deadlines. In part, this is because safety and application issues are proving more complicated than expected.
This year, a self-drive Uber test-car in the US hit and killed a woman as she crossed the road at night. The more rabid supporters of autonomous technology have blamed her, because she was not on a pedestrian crossing, and argued that pedestrians all over the world must be retrained for an autonomous world.
Backlash against this suggestion has been fierce – particularly after a preliminary post-crash investigation found the Uber’s sensors had failed to identify the victim as a human – and there have been calls for testing to slow while more safety features are developed. The overriding view is that companies must develop vehicles for the world as it is, not as they would like it to be.
A survey this year found that 73% of Americans would be afraid to travel in self-driving cars. In another survey, 75% of respondents said vehicles needed intensive in-town, real-world testing before they could be considered for daily use. But 54% of them said the testing should take place nowhere near where they live.
But it’s not just about safety. There’s also cost. Research and development bills are plunging participants into ever-deepening money-pits from which there seems to be no early escape.
That’s why BMW is reported to be creating a consortium to share the pain. Magna, Fiat Chrysler and automotive suppliers Delphi and Continental are understood to be interested, as well as autonomous technology specialist Mobileye. BMW board member Klaus Froehlich says some ride-hailing companies may also join.
BMW is already co-operating with arch-rival Mercedes-Benz on some mobility activities, and now Honda has decided to work with General Motors on self-driving technology.
And there’s a new player in the game. After UK vacuum cleaner company Dyson said it wanted to build electric cars containing autonomous technology, Swedish furniture company Ikea is also dipping in its toe. Following the acquisition of a number of technology companies, it says it wants to get involved in the interior design of autonomous vehicles.A self-driving bed, anyone?