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Want to ride a driverless car or train?

  • Published at 11:10 am May 5th, 2015
Want to ride a driverless car or train?

Driving in Bangladesh has become a big hassle. Getting a good and cautious driver is sheer luck. I am waiting for the day when I shall sit in my car, register my destination on the GPS (Global Positioning System), put the car on self-driving mode, start the engine and let it go. I shall relax, read my favourite book or take a nap and, sooner or later, find myself in front of my destination! I will not drive or navigate the car. The car, with its automated driving technology, will do everything for me. Am I daydreaming? No, I am not.

Recently, an Audi car started from the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, crossed 3,400 miles, touched 15 cities driverless and arrived in New York after nine days. The trip was organised by auto parts maker Delphi to test its automated driving technology. To comply with state regulations, one person sat in the driver's seat, ready to take over in case of an emergency. Several engineers sat in the car to monitor its performance. 99% of the trip was completed in automated mode. What a success!

The car was equipped with high-tech electronic gadgets, worth about $150,000, that allowed it to make human-like decisions during turning, stopping at traffic lights, exiting and entering highways, navigating city streets or parking. Along the way, the vehicle encountered difficult driving situations such as traffic circles, construction zones, bridges, tunnels, aggressive drivers and a variety of weather conditions. Sounds fantastic!

Google’s self-driving car project started in 2009 with nearly 100,000 miles of testing on California highways. Its current fleet of more than two dozen Lexus hybrid SUVs have travelled over 7,000,000 miles in self-driving mode. Google’s self-driving cars are believed to be safer. “After a couple of minutes you forget the car is driving itself. It's smooth, patient, and cautious,” one rider wrote in an e-mail. Several reputed car manufacturers unveiled models of automated cars. Renault-Nissan’s CEO hopes to have a model on sale by 2020! Four states in the US now allow driverless cars on the streets.

Although, automated cars are still in experimental stage, Automatic Train Operation (ATO) system has been in service for many years. Most systems employ a driver (operator) to alleviate risks in case of failures or emergencies. Modern ATO systems are computer-controlled and used widely in Metro lines in London, Paris, Washington, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Singapore and several other cities. Automated trains are safer than manually driven ones as computer controlled systems eliminate the possibility of human errors.

In this age of automation, how far are we in Bangladesh? Believe it or not, a train ran 27km backwards, crossing three stations in Rajbari, without its driver (DS: April 13, 2015)! Thanks to a ticket checker's presence of mind, the train, Faridpur Express, finally stopped near Pangsha station. Thank goodness!

How could it happen? According to railway officials, minutes before the train was due to leave Rajbari station, its driver was busy chewing betel leaf on the platform while his assistant was checking the engine. The assistant perhaps manipulated some wrong gears that made the train roll backwards. “Before I could realise what was happening, the train had shot out of the station,” the driver said later. Failing to stop the train, the assistant jumped off the moving train! Good job! At least he saved his life, leaving 150 passengers at the mercy of their fate!

It took quite some time for the passengers to realise that something had gone wrong. As they began to panic, the ticket checker calmed them down. With the help of some passengers, he opened the air-brake hoses between the carriages which put the brakes on and stopped the train. Very clever and good effort!

It was mere negligence of the driver and his assistant that put the lives of the passengers at great risk. Imagine what would have happened if another passenger train travelled from the other end on the same track and collided with it. Bravo to the ticket checker who helped to avert what could have been a catastrophic accident! The driver, his assistant and the guard were suspended. It is reported that the railway formed a five-member team to probe the incident. Will the report see the light of the day? Shall we learn any lesson from it? Embarrassing questions!

I still want to ride my driverless dream car but next time I take a train journey in Bangladesh, I shall carry a basketful of betel leaves as gift for the driver and a leash for his assistant to make sure they are not obliged to leave the engine during the journey!