Disruptive technologies: Of driverless cars in Zimbabwe

The disruptive technology hype is abuzz with innovations such as the driverless or autonomous cars, drones, artificial intelligence etc.

guest column: Tororiro Isaac Chaza

All these innovations are exciting and I believe it is a question of time before we see these in Zimbabwe. Already if you go to certain events like weddings or church meetings you see drone cameras being used. In developed countries autonomous cars are being deployed and there is a race among vehicle manufacturers to enhance the technology for safety. Surely Zimbabwe cannot be left out. We need to adapt. So let us look at the advent of the autonomous cars on our roads in Harare, or even countrywide.

Let us first try to unpack the technology required for an autonomous vehicle to safely navigate the roads. Wikipedia (www.wikipedia.com) describes the technology as “a self-driving car, also known as a robot car, is a vehicle that is capable of sensing its environment and moving with little or no human input.” In order for this vehicle to be driverless, it needs to work with a number of sensors “such as radar, computer vision, Lidar, sonar, GPS, odometry and inertial measurement units. Advanced control systems interpret sensory information to identify appropriate navigation paths, as well as obstacles and relevant signage”. Lidar’uses a sensor which uses laser light beamed towards a target object and measures the time it takes to receive the laser light reflected back towards the sensor.

It will be difficult to just import a driverless car into Zimbabwe without a massive effort to customise it with bespoke software and sensor technology to suit the local conditions.

The navigation sensors and software would have to be enhanced to become pothole sensitive. I must admit there has been some improvement on some roads as they have been patched. For instance at one time the potholes on Arcturus Road were visible on Google Maps. Now they have disappeared. However, there is still too much work to do to improve the roads. Normally, the Lidar is put on top of the car, but in Zimbabwe one would also need an under-chassis Lidar for spotting potholes. But will the driverless car be able to avoid the pothole fast enough? Alas, I do not think so. And what will Lidar make of the self-employed road maintenance personnel who are seen on our road who slowly, and very slowly repair potholes using bricks for a compassionate fee? Times are hard.

There has to be customisation on the correct reading of traffic lights. In Harare, when a traffic light goes from red to “blank” it means “go” because the light bulb for the green light is dead. Now, that is the rule on most intersections, but it becomes complicated on intersections with the filter arrow. The driverless car would have to be programmed to know which traffic lights go from red to “blank”, meaning “go” and/or you can also filter right. There are also some intersections where it does not matter what the traffic light is indicating, just go and squeeze in into the madness at your own peril.

At times there are gracious “street kids” more like adults though, who immediately become traffic wardens. They do an excellent job of trying to direct and clear the traffic gridlock at the intersections. Now, the driverless car would have to understand that the “street kid” in front who is not wearing any safety clothing such as that of a police officer and waving his hands is actually in charge of traffic control.

But if any accident were to happen because the “street kid” directed the driverless car to proceed without giving way to the car on the right, the street kid’s authority is rendered null and void as a defence. The normal rule of “give way to the vehicle on your right” never seems to be working at all in Harare. The rule is watch out!
The autonomous car would have to be programmed to understand certain roads, especially to and from high-density suburbs (HDS), which have become very high density in terms of vehicular traffic. The rule is that in the morning when most traffic is going from the HDS towards the town centre and you are going in the opposite direction, you do not have the right of way in your own lane. Just give way to the on-coming traffic which is in your lane.

It is rightfully your lane, but if you do not get out of the way, you may cause a serious accident, which may be fatal to you and the kombi-full of innocent passengers.
Even if you are not “killed” I wonder what the insurance company will say as the kombi that smashed into you would most likely be not insured.

The intersections with a single “right turn” lane are no longer the rule. One can make an additional lane from the outer lane with impunity. No one is there to police the violation. The autonomous car will have to be programmed to observe such a violation. On top of all that, there seems to be a dangerous “school run” trend of school mums or dads talking on the cellphone and WhatsApping while driving , especially when turning, with a child sitting in the front seat.

The autonomous car’s Lidar would have to scan and identify the mushikashika (informal, even illegal taxis) vehicles and proceed with care or completely avoid being near these. So Lidar would have to identify a FunCargo, Honda Fit, Toyota Wish or any such vehicle, and quickly decide if this is a mushikashika or a decent law-abiding citizen. It is difficult to tell as even law-abiding citizens tend to drive like the mushikashika. It could also be a case of fraudulently obtained driving licences or no licences.

Lidar must understand that even when the traffic light turns green for ‘go,’ don’t go yet. There is a very high probability (99.999%) that the car coming from the right, or left, at high speed against a red robot is not going to stop at all.

Lidar must not be confused by recognising humans who travel at 80km/h on our roads. Those are hwindis (touts) on the back of a travelling kombi. I perceive this is a very dangerous stunt. If a tout were to fall at 80km/h and the autonomous car is behind the kombi, there would be no time to stop. I wonder how they get away with it when I was always fined for an original German manufacturer’s fire extinguisher because it did not have a Standards Association of Zimbabwe stamp, or the manufacturer’s original spare “buscuit” wheel.

When it comes to long distance driving, the autonomous car must be programmed to resist going on the road no matter what. But in case the regulatory authority insists that the autonomous car service provider must also cater for long distance, there is a whole new set of rules that need to be programmed for Lidar to observe.

Chief among these rules is no night-time driving under any circumstances. Although Lidar does not rely on sunlight to sense objects, it is still dangerous to drive at night for a number of reasons some of them covered below.

I believe we can make the driverless car work and make Zimbabwe great again. Perhaps one more observation that Lidar must recognise the presidential entourage. I do not know how that can be programmed.

Tororiro Isaac Chaza is vice-chairman of Zimbabwe Information and Communication Technologies, a division of the Zimbabwe Institution of Engineers.