So you’re saying you’re not going to get into a self-driving car but you are not afraid of using an elevator? Szymon Wierciński, PhD, Department of Strategy, Kozminski University, in conversation with Tomasz Jurczak

Tomasz Jurczak: Judging by the increasing number of Tesla crashes and reports published by automotive market monitoring institutes, it seems that new projects are not going to be safe any time soon. According to Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, 90 percent of road accidents are caused by human error but only one third of them could be eliminated with the use of autonomous vehicles.

Szymon Wierciński*: Over the past ten or twelve years we have seen huge progress in the development of self-driving cars. It has been marked by innovation and new technologies but also by advancing and using them in conjunction with specific business models. In the future, a driverless car is not going to be a mere means of transportation as it is the case today. Tesla and Uber are planning to use such cars as a tool to devise new business models. The owner of the cars could, for example, turn them into autonomous taxis or mobile offices. This opens up great opportunities for many sectors which have been operating in a completely different model.

Szymon Wierciński, PhD

When autonomous vehicles hit the road, they will be safer than the cars we are driving today. Today, drivers have to make a lot of decisions, often under pressure. In the future, there will be no need for that.

Provided that people are not afraid of such cars…

Elon Musk says that the driverless car technology can be compared to modern elevators. Several decades ago there used to be elevator operators who were responsible for taking us from floor A to floor B. Nowadays, no one would even think about giving a job like that to a person. We simply press the button and we are sure that the system will work. When we enter an elevator, we don’t think about how it works. We don’t operate it, we just tell it what to do. It will be the same with autonomous vehicles.

Since many drivers are led by emotions and act irrationally against all logic, the algorithm controlling autonomous vehicles cannot rely solely on the information generated during a drive

Szymon Wierciński

For now, the technology is not perfect and it’s not as safe as we would like it to be. However, I’m sure that in the future, if we use algorithms, we won’t bother our heads about safety. For most of us it will be clear that an autonomous vehicle controlled by an algorithm is safer than a car driven by a driver.

But that is going to take some time.

We are at a point of technological and social change. Today’s discussions about safety of autonomous vehicles might disappear in 20 or 30 years. This technology will become commonplace and it will be hard to believe for the generation of babies born in 2020s that such issues were even debated.

How to teach an algorithm to drive safely on roads?

We are trying to teach autonomous systems to move on roads that were not designed for that kind of traffic; 100 percent of cars on roads are driven by humans. To make things more complicated, many drivers are led by emotions and act irrationally against all logic. The algorithm controlling autonomous vehicles cannot rely solely on the information generated during a drive. We need to improve it to make it smart enough to respond to different situations on the road caused by people who are led by emotions and who are acting irrationally against all logic.

That, indeed, might present an insurmountable challenge. It is hard to predict whether machines can learn that. There are countless situations that can occur on the road. I am not sure if a self-driving car could handle all of them.

It does not inspire optimism.

But there is a solution: we need to build roads that are dedicated to autonomous driving systems and fitted with sensor systems.

You are talking about an ideal situation but, to me, it seems that for another several decades we will be implementing this technology in a non-ideal world with roads of different quality, incompatible infrastructure, a varying number of autonomous cars, etc.

Of course. It’s a process. Each country will follow its own path. The average age of a car in Poland is probably 10 years, which is several years more than in Western Europe. The farther to the East, the older the vehicles. The same goes for infrastructure and the stage of testing of autonomous vehicles. The time needed to adapt to an ideal scenario will vary by country.

Don’t you fear that after a series of self-driving car crashes in Poland or in any other country the development of that technology may be put in jeopardy?

Do you mean the politicians? It’s true that rolling out new technologies causes fear, which is best exemplified in 5G – a technology that is to contribute to the development of autonomous driving in cities. In western countries telecommunication masts have already been set on fire. At that point, we should mention that Poland is a capitalist country, where good technologies usually supplant less efficient ones. If self-driving cars make our lives more comfortable and safer and if they bring savings, there will be no going back.

You’ve mentioned 5G. In order to ensure efficient operation of autonomous vehicles, it will be necessary to connect their systems to a single general traffic management system. And that might lead straight to surveillance.

The problem of placing us under surveillance of smart cars is not going to avert the implementation of that technology. Without being forced to, we are already using technologies that are spying on us. Let me illustrate that with an example. ViaTOLL and applications such as ProteGO are the solutions designed to track vehicles and persons for a specific purpose. We have also traded our personal data for a possibility to use a “free-of-charge” mailbox or browser.

Although it is impossible to prevent all accidents, more data means a higher level of safety in the future. The system is self-improving

The question is what we are given in exchange for being tracked. If the insurance companies offered lower premiums to everyone using Tesla autopilot, who wouldn’t seize the opportunity of saving some money? There is a huge difference between imposing something and making a free choice for the sake of convenience or savings. In the latter case, drivers are willing to provide their data, without being forced.

Future generations using hundreds of similar applications will not have any problem with sharing the information about their private life. There is also the issue of safety, which means a thorough analysis of the route of a car, maneuvers and behaviors of other road users. It’s a huge amount of data that will help us protect our life, health and property.

Today’s autonomous systems are excellent at identifying risks, but are often unable to avoid them. Do you think it will ever be possible for a system to anticipate a threat?

Of course, but that will take time. The 5G technology has already been launched in Poland although it has been using old frequencies only. If there is adequate road infrastructure and if cars and streets are fitted with appropriate sensor systems, vehicles will be able to use a fast 5G network to communicate with each other in real time. Should these conditions be met, the time needed to detect and react to a risk will be shorter.

Cars will be able to see what’s happening around them and they will know what maneuver a driver of another car intends to make. This will also apply to non-autonomous cars. All data will be shared between vehicles, which will contribute to enhanced road safety. On-board systems will notify each other about an intended manoeuver, failures and unexpected situations.

And what about accidents?

They are unavoidable. However, more data means a higher level of safety in the future. The system is self-improving.

Are we approaching the era of autonomous vehicles?

I think so. But it’s not only about safety. In the future, the idea of a car, seen as an item used in our everyday life, will have to be redefined. For the main part of the day cars are not used; they are parked in front of our houses or offices, losing their value with every minute. In the future, they will be used by other people and will earn money for us. And I’m pretty sure that some of us will even give up their cars.

*Szymon Wierciński is a doctor of economics and an experienced coach and consultant in the field of creating business models, growth strategies, innovation-driven development, startups and spinoffs for new markets, products and ventures. He is also a Kozminski University expert in the digital innovation strategy.

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