In the motoring world, each new technological advancement introduced over the decades has seen cars improve in terms of driver safety and enjoyment. But fatal collisions on our roads – as South Africa again experienced over the past Easter weekend – remain a cause for concern for manufacturers.
The ministry of transport on Friday said the number of road fatalities went up by 51% these Easter holidays, compared with the same time last year. In a statement, Transport Minister Joe Maswanganyi said: “Many people who died on our roads were victims of hit-and-run incidents – pedestrians jaywalking or motorists who were [speeding].”
Driver behaviour contributes to most collisions. Increasing the visibility of traffic officers during the holidays and improving driver testing are not achieving the desired goals of having better drivers on the roads.
Manufacturers are constantly pushing the limits of technology to make cars better and safer.
Not too long ago, power steering was only available in top-of-the-range cars, making it difficult for drivers of bakkies and trucks to turn.
Today, thanks to this technology becoming more standard and affordable, it is ubiquitous in the market.
In the quest to reduce accidents, manufacturers are looking beyond human frailty to ensure that the roads are free from crashes. For example, Japanese car manufacturer Nissan’s Intelligent Mobility project introduced ProPilot technology last August, which is aimed at improving driver behaviour.
Kazuhiro Doi, alliance global director at the Nissan Research Centre, said the company continues to produce technology to provide “more fun and convenience for the driver. Intelligent Mobility is the core value from Nissan to the driver.”
The benefits of the technology tested in its Nissan Serena (a family car not available in South Africa) could be the answer for the local market, where reckless driving causes countless deaths each year.
The first phase of the Nissan ProPilot technology has been designed for single lanes on the highway, but more developments are envisaged for the future.
During a recent test of the technology on the streets of Yokohama, Japan, the driver used the ProPilot programme to set the vehicle’s speed and the distance between the pilot car and the one in front of it and the technology kicked in.
Unlike existing cruise control technology, ProPilot ensures that the car swerves in the right direction when the road curves and straightens again without the driver turning the steering wheel. However, you have to keep your hands on the steering wheel all the time.
“The technology is not designed to replace the driver, the driver is still in control of the car,” Doi said.
Daniele Schillaci, head of marketing and sales at Nissan, said the technology has been on the market for less than a year and “given its success, we are going to release it in the global market”. In Europe, the technology will be introduced in the Qashqai – a model also sold in South Africa.
Asked whether there were plans for South Africa, Schillaci said it was something the company was considering, but he couldn’t say exactly when the technology would be available locally.
He said surveys had shown that drivers loved the technology and that one day there could be vehicles on the roads that were fully autonomous.
“Technically, one day we might see fully autonomous [cars], but when, time will determine,” he said.
The company plans to launch multiple-lane-changing technology as the second phase of the ProPilot next year. This will ensure that, once engaged, the car can change lanes on a highway to overtake slow-moving vehicles without requiring it to be reset.
By 2020, the city-driving phase will be launched.
If brought to South Africa, the technology could assist in reducing the carnage on our roads, but that will require regulatory changes to laws governing our roads.
That said, judging by the continuous loss of life on our roads due to poor driver behaviour, it might be exactly what the country needs