Now that Elon Musk’s self-driving Beta is available in North America, it is only a question of time before autonomous vehicles arrive in Kathmandu. After that, we can all sit back, relax in the co-pilot seat while the autonomous vehicle is pulled over for overspeeding and driving under the influence.
Indeed, it will be a huge relief to us who have been driven up the wall by Kathmandu’s anarchic traffic not to have to do the actual driving ourselves anymore. However, the robotic cars with artificial intelligence will need a steep learning curve to be able to take on everything that Kathmandu’s streets have to offer.
We have to recognise, however, that these autonomous autos are programmed for western civilisation, and may have to be reformatted and rebooted to adapt to our road culture.
For example, a driverless car may have been instructed by its maker never to honk. Well, in Nepal, honking is an important part of the precaution we have to take for road safety to make ourselves seen and heard. Traffic Police tried to enforce the no-honking rule once, but gave up when vehicles started bumping into each other. The Almighty in his/her/its/their infinite wisdom equipped cars with horns, and we should follow the polite instruction at the back of trucks to ‘Horn Please’.
The driverless car can be fined Rs6,000 and/or face a 6 month jail sentence if it fails to honk unnecessarily at Baneswor intersection — unless, of course, the robot driver can be programmed to offer a bribe to the office on duty there.
Everywhere else in the world, driverless cars automatically slow down at zebra crossings in order to let pedestrians cross. We can do away with this feature in Kathmandu because (a) the zebras are not there anymore since the white paint is gone, and (b) drivers in Nepal are not longer required to stop at non-existent zebra crossings and it is the robotic car’s responsibility to accelerate and beat pedestrians trying to illegally cross the road before they get to the other side.
Similarly, the straight yellow centreline is just a suggestion, and the smart car has to learn to also drive on the right side of the road, even if it is the wrong side.
Machine-learning and AI will help self-driving cars to deal with street fauna that roam Kathmandu’s streets. Driverless vehicles will find out the hard way that the oxen at Chabahil interaction serve as bovine traffic islands in order to ensure the smooth flow of traffic. Do NOT try to run them down because the computer driving the car can face life imprisonment.
The introduction of driverless vehicles in Nepal will coincide with Google Maps introducing information on traffic jams. This is helpful, but the auto auto will have to relearn the rules governing the only working traffic light in Kathmandu. GREEN means: FAST; AMBER means FASTER; and RED means FASTEST.
Even though an autonomous vehicle does not have a driver, rules are rules and the car will have to pass a driving test at Putali Sadak. The trick is to fail the test because following the rules is dangerous when no one else is following them.
It is also important for the non-driver to learn that in the city a blinking right side light means the vehicle in question is thinking of turning right but isn’t sure, it could be left. On highways: blinking the right signal means the car behind can overtake even if there is a hairpin bend ahead.
While stationary, a right sidelight means I am illegally parked in a no-parking zone, but I’m pretending I’m not parked, just gone in for a takeout from Kalinchok Sekuwa Corner and Bar.