Driving on many African roads is for the persevering, bold and daring.
Imagine what would happen if an Uber driverless car ever hit the streets of Ikorodu in Nigeria, Kawangware in Kenya, or Old Port Bell Road in Uganda. Slow motion traffic jams on one hand, and drivers tearing down decrepit roads without an iota of fear for ramming into other cars or running over unsuspecting passengers on the other.
Then there are the life-threatening potholes that could literally swallow and drown a big car.
Think of the traffic cops who scan vehicles for the smallest flaw in order to ask for a little something should they deem necessary - tread on tire worn down, check. Dirty windshield, check. Not so good looking driver, check. The 'little something' is often a fraction of the fine they would otherwise pay, which explains why drivers would quickly reach for their pockets when flagged down by the cops.
Then there are stray cats and dogs running about the streets, belonging to nobody, but the moment you hit one, a distraught owner or two appears with an affectionate pet name that they will invoke while asking for compensation. Depending on your location, there also could also be stray goats, cows, donkeys and even camels trying their chance at crossing the serpentine roads.
The most unlikely, or perhaps most bizarre, drivers have on previous occasions seen brides holding flowers, and frightening flying objects crossing the roads especially late in the night. It’s very strange.
These and more are some of the problems Uber’s driverless cars would face on many African roads.
Uber recently launched its driverless car in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The city most renown for steel and industry has become a hotbed for technology and innovation.
While skeptics argue that the city has given too much leeway to Uber just for a sheen of innovation to the point of breaching traffic laws and putting human lives at risk, it is important to keep in mind that over 3000 lives are lost daily in road related accidents. Herein lies the promise of the driverless car, taking the human out of the equation, albeit not entirely.
There have been fatalities on two separate occasions involving cars on 'autopilot'. In January 2016, a young Chinese man was alleged killed by the Tesla autopilot feature. That accident was strikingly similar to the catastrophic Tesla Florida crash where another man was killed.
Tesla reportedly uses cameras rather than radar technology, to enable their cars to 'see' the environment better. The cameras quite often than not, fail under unfavorable conditions such as fog. Uber’s technology is powered LIDAR, which is similar to radar, but uses light from lasers rather than radio beams to detect obstacles.
While this technology can work in the autobahns and freeways of the developed world, Africa's roads are much more challenging. Unlike America and China, where almost each road has multiple and well defined lanes, our roads are a different playfield altogether.
If the Uber Driverless car arrived in one of those chaotic roads in Benin, just like many other African countries, would it ever know what direction to take without ramming into Mama Akeke’s shop by the road side or running over some stray goats and chickens? How about ducking in time to avoid scratches from an okada (motorbike)? This and a million other catch-22s need to be factored in before the driverless cars can truly take to Africa's roads.
Since the cars are pretty much computers on wheels, given they are fed nonsensical and rather overwhelming inputs. They would generally do nothing, and possibly appear to freeze as they loop eternally trying to find a solution to the unsolvable problems presented.
They could also be bogged down or bluescreened, the same way MS Windows computers crash or tongue-in-cheek, the same way blueticks give people mini-heart attacks on whatsapp. It’s not easy.
They freeze. They blow-up. They cease.
Overcoming this will need more than just lines of code. The cars will have to think like human beings.