My Idea for Future Transportation in Africa

“Self-flying Cars”

Yes, that is it. You heard me right. “Self-flying Cars”, in Africa. I know there are many questions in your mind right now. How? When? Is it even possible? Well, the aim of this article is not to answer those questions but to reason about a more involving question — Why? I think this is the most important question, and I will explain in a little bit.

Sometime ago I was reading a post by the African entrepreneur Strive Masayiwa on Facebook and he mentioned in the comments that, (paraphrasing) “the transportation of the future is not by roads”. It is unfortunate I am unable to retrieve the link to this original post but I could remember, this was the first time I had the chance to really think about what the future of transportation in Africa would look like. This was interesting to me because at that time, I was doing a self-driving car Nanodegree at Udacity and I was looking at how I could apply this knowledge back in Nigeria. (By the way, Udacity has a new Nanodegree called “Flying Car Nanodegree”, also by the pioneer of self-driving cars, Sebastian Thrun). So it hit me that the future might not even be self-driving cars, most especially in Africa.

Presently, self-driving cars seem to be making the news and many have predicted when we will see the first self-driving car. However, there are still major drawbacks to this promising technology. The car company, Volvo, was recently reported to scale back on their self-driving technology ambition. They probably realized how hard it is, or could not just find a way to make it work earlier than they predicted. Lets not forget that Google, probably with the most promising of all self-driving technology players, has been working on this for almost a decade. In my opinion, one very important issue with the adoption of self-driving cars is that of incorporating it into an already human-saturated system, the road networks. In other words, we are trying to build a technology for a system that was originally built for humans. We will have to do a lot of work to achieve this. More importantly, the technology on which most self-driving cars are built makes it difficult to train a car in San Fransisco, United States and deploy it in Nairobi, Kenya. This is why the Google self-driving car has driven more than 3 million miles and is still not ready for full deployment. Not to talk of possibly the biggest issue, which is humans themselves. That been said, there is no doubt that self-driving cars will someday take over from human-driven cars, but as long the cars still have to use the same infrastructures as human, there will continue to be complications.

This brings me to the reasons why I think Africa is the best place to pioneer self-flying cars technology adoption, and consequently the future cities of the world.

Africa lacks the very infrastructure that make self-driving cars workthe road networks. And suppose we even try to adopt this technology as soon and as fast as possible, it will take decades to develop our road infrastructure to a point that we can adopt self-driving cars. This is a disadvantage for self-driving cars adoption but, to me, a motivation to chart another course. So I am thinking, do we really need roads for transportation? What infrastructures are needed to adopt a self-flying transportation system? I think, not as much as we need for roads. The air space is “abundant”. What we need are, good control and regulations for safety and effective use of the air space. This is possible, it will take some time, but it is possible. I just want us to get started as soon as possible.

Km of road per 100 sq. km of land area

Self-flying cars are a “must-have” rather than a “nice-to-have” for Africa. As the world becomes more connected through the internet, we begin to learn more about African cities, towns and villages that have next-to-nothing accessibility. People who need basic necessities and interventions in case of emergency but would be hard to reach without better transportation systems. It is good to see projects like the one from Zipline drones, delivering medical supplies to hard to reach areas of Rwanda. This is both a testament and an indication that we need a new model for transportation systems, and self-flying cars hold a lot of potential in this area. On the other hand, projects like the Dubai self-flying taxis appeal more to luxury and convenience. You get the idea.

A Zipline drone releases a blood package in southern Rwanda

Adoption in Africa will be less rough. Most cities in Africa are not well planned and new plans might be adopting an outdated model if we do not start incorporating new ideas such as the mode of transportation for the future. On the other hand, ideas for future cities come from developed countries but the adoption is a much more difficult task because those solutions are in most cases retrofitting or renovation of old cities. In Africa, because of what I call infrastructural infancy, we have the chance to build future cities from the ground up. We can engineer cities that organically incorporates nature, are people centered and truly futuristic. If we can start thinking in this direction, adoption will be less rough because we will live through it and first hand experience the impacts, which will be less drastic.

Time to stop playing second fiddle. I see the self-flying cars technology to be an opportunity to create new knowledge that is truly indigenous to Africa. One that we can grow with and live through, including the pains, the failures, the successes and the breakthroughs. I see no other place in the world where this experience would be one of a kind than in Africa. If we start now, we stand the chance of teaching the rest of world how it is done. Not just because we can, but more importantly because we are put in the situation that necessitates us to and we took the opportunity.

Just imagine for a second, a city with no roads, there has never been and there will never be roads, but you can still go from one point to another with the most ease. Fact is, these cities already exist, in Africa. Just that the flying-cars are yet to arrive.

Ok, these are all optimistic opinions. But what is the point of presenting alternative opinions anyway? I think the important question now is, what should we do?

Dream. Maybe this the only thing you can think of this article, but that is good enough, as long as you can. The more dreamers we have, the sooner we can get there.

I wish I can say more, but unless you are a government official or a technocrat, I would say, Invest! Invest in the future.

Update 10th April, 2018.

I found this video of a talk by Jeremy Rifkin through Vice, which supports the premise of the idea in this post. If you have a chance you can see the whole video but it will start playing from the section that supports this post. Learn.

Hey!, and if you have some ideas of your own or you would like to help this dream, please leave a comment or send me an email at tjosh.owoyemi[at]gmail.com.

Cheers.

PhD, Research Engineer at Elix Inc, Japan.