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Monday, January 5, 2015

Safe cars and safe roads ....

The era of self driving cars is here. Google is testing its completely autonomous cars on Californian roads. Tesla just launched Model-D which has auto-pilot type features, which allow almost semi-autonomous driving of the car. 

While riding on my trip to Lake Tahoe on free-way I was thinking about the issues such as road safety, traffic sense etc in the context of American Free-way traffic. And how does the rule change when the other parts of the world such as Indian Express-ways are concerned. 

Safety is a matter of following the discipline and rules so that people driving cars follow a common protocol. Riding on an American free-way could be tiresome in the beginning as one has to keep a tab on many things such as the lane in which one is driving, traffic speed-limits, exits, the road directions, the roads, GPS guidance, etc. Since lane changes happen at a speed-of upto 60 miles per hour, if proper precaution is not taken crashes are imminent. Yet, with experience people get better at driving safely and overall the driving safety is at its highest. 

Self driving cars thus have an interesting existing framework of rules and protocols, in terms of the existing infrastructure on which their sole navigation depends heavily. Making them work correctly (at least on free-ways) depends on what happens when these protocols are broken and how to take those decisions. 

Even before self driving cars could be on road I think these kind of features should already enhance the safety on roads. For e.g. most accident happen due to human errors. Such as a person mistakenly takes a sudden turn, brakes, changes lane, or mis-judges other cars reaction etc. If all cars on roads follow a common protocol and talk through sensors, then the element of human error is removed, which makes driving much safer. I think many of the expensive cars at present do have most of these technologies where the car takes control of the situation if human error is sensed. For e.g. it would be wise to have a feature which disables a sudden lane change in the sense a crash with another vehicle is imminent. Here car is acting like a guardian when the human driving it has committed a mistake. 

Now, moving to the context of driving in other countries like India. As Indians get more prosperous they will drive more and spend more time on road. Safety becomes a prominent concern here. However, the situation in the Indian context is very difficult to handle due to the lack of common standards that everybody should follow as many times the drivers riding drive completely recklessly, risking everybody's life. This happens as the driving license obtaining rules etc are not strictly enforced. With the rise of newly build expressways the fatal crashes where people die are also on rise. This makes the situation extremely complicated, because no matter how safe your own car might be, chances are you might be at the mercy of another person bad driving habit. There was an episode in the TV series Satymev Jayate about fatality of Indian roads, which prominently mentions related issues. 

Making driving a safe experience is thus a herculean task depending on the context. Self driving cars even though they might arrive in developed countries, will be completely useless in emerging nations such as India, due to the mix of driving conditions and the lack of a coherent standard. So what is the best way to ensure increased safety on the Indian roads? Follow the rules and make obtaining the driving license a rigorous exercise, and not based on the ability to bribe a certain official, because the implications for the society as a whole are huge. Corruption thus plays a huge role in the advancement of the societies, and will play its role in ensuring safety on the Indian roads too. 

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