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Vol. XXVIII No. 12, October 1-15, 2018

Self-driving – yesterday and tomorrow

by Vijaysree Venkatraman

A memorable scene in the 1963 Tamil movie Paar Magale Paar features Cho Ramaswamy who makes his screen debut as ‘Mechanic’ Madasamy. As a teen, this character had run away to the Tamil capital, where besides freedom, he also tasted special buns from McRennett bakery and chai from Irani tea shops. We meet the young man in the portico of a bungalow in Madurai, the home of an industrialist (played by a pipe-smoking Sivaji Ganesan).

Now, the mechanic doesn’t think much of the rich man’s mini-fleet and says so, bluntly, in Madras-bashai. He even attributes a car’s sorry state to the car owner’s “self-driving.” The Sivaji character looks like he is about to have a fit. Still, he needs a skilled person to drive his college-going daughters around. When they chime in to say that the mechanic appears to be a “witty fellow,” he hires Madasamy on the spot.

Self-driving cars, autonomous vehicles that ferry people and goods around without a human at the wheel, have been in the news a lot lately. But in southern India, “self-driving” used to mean you drove your own automobile, you didn’t need the services of a chauffeur. Back in the days of black-and-white movies, the self-driving woman was a rare sight on Indian roads. Such a woman may have been regarded as a person in charge of her own destiny – an object of envy.

My mother, who was a college student in theMadras of the 1960s, was very much in awe of any woman, who could take the wheel. Though she had taught herself to ride a cycle and pedaled to classes, driving lessons had been out of the question. This was a pity because she had a wonderful sense of direction and could comfortably navigate the streets of the city. I can see her fixing a flat tyre in a pinch. She came from a family of engineers and worked well with her hands. Although she didn’t say it, I sensed that she wanted me to join the ranks of self-driving women.

When my father, an accountant, said, “You should be always in the driver’s seat,” he only meant it figuratively. Take charge of your life was the idea. On the daily commute, we were both happy passengers. He was content to sit back and pore over work-related papers. Ditto for me, except I took the train or the bus and read works of fiction. Following the plot of a sci-fi trilogy or reading a Sanskrit play in the original was so much easier than having to focus on the chaotic roads ahead.

As a graduate student in the United States – land of great distances – I finally signed up for driving lessons. On the narrow streets of Boston, former cow-paths, I did my best to avoid moving objects (pedestrians, pets, and vehicles) and standing ones (utility poles, trees, and parked cars). My driving instructor, who chatted away on his cellphone, would spring to action just before I did anything catastrophic, so all was well. I got my license on my second attempt.

My driving licence was of no use when I was back in Chennai to visit family. The chauffeur-driven Ambassador, a perk from my father’s office days, was long gone. Public transit was unreliable. I could hire a call taxi, if I planned to be out all day; there was the auto-rickshaw for shorter rides. Most evenings I would be stuck at home, because I didn’t want to deal with stress-inducing transit options. The engagements column in The Hindu listed fun events in various parts of the city. “All are welcome,” most said, but if I could not get to these venues by myself, the events might as well be happening in Timbuktu.

When ride-hailing apps like Uber and Ola came along, the city came alive for me. I suspect this is true for some other women as well. It is not that Chennai suddenly became a happening city in the last five years or so. It is just that we now have a safe and convenient way to get to events that interest us. In theory, we can now go where we want, when we want to. Accessibility is no longer an issue.

Even so, I can’t wait for self-driving cars to hit the roads. The world over, automakers are now testing prototypes. The current versions expect the human to take over in tricky situations – if there is an accident ahead or if there is construction going on, for instance. So, it could be a while before we have fully-autonomous cars, but imagine: cars that park themselves, no chatty cabbie, no worrying about the motives of the driver.

Perhaps self-driving cars, law-abiding robots, will only work in utopian cities where people, both pedestrians and drivers, obey the rules of the road. It may be difficult to programme them to ply in congested roads where nimbler vehicles try to squeeze through gaps to get ahead. Here in Chennai, humans might stump the robots and bring them to a complete standstill in many instances.

Driverless cars may simply not be a possibility here. But the backseat of the Uber or Ola is a good place to sit back and dream of fanciful things. Isn’t that how humans have progressed through the ages – through advances in technology and a bit of wishful thinking?

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