The Delhi Metro, city's pride, is all set to go 'driverless' by the end of next year. Some might say that Delhi already has a surfeit of driverless vehicles, considering how recklessly they drive in Delhi. The next step in driverless transport will be introducing driverless cars and scooters to announce that developing India has leaped into the 'developed' category. We are awaiting the first run of the Bullet Train to join a select band of nations who have those near supersonic trains.That the momentous day of driverless Metro is still far--and days of driverless cars and scooters even farther- is some consolation for those sceptics who believe that there is something in Delhi's heavily polluted air that breeds indiscipline in all drivers. The sight of a train hurtling driven by an invisible 'ghost' towards the platform can be frightening for the faint hearted.Agreed, that train driving is different from driving other mechanised vehicles. But train drivers too are known to err: Most train accidents have been attributed to 'human error'. Still, it is hard to believe that a driverless vehicle in Delhi, be it a car or a train, will be a better bet—and safer to travel.Anticipating the doubts of the sceptics, the Metro has said that initially the driverless trains will run with an 'attendant' who will handle any crisis that suddenly arises. But after a while—maybe a year or so—Metro services will be driverless on all the lines.Perhaps the scepticism is not unfounded. A trial run of the driverless Metro early in November ended with two trains being found on the same track. Since it was just a trial run and not a regular passenger run there were no casualties. But it was ominous—at least, in the eyes of the sceptics.First reports suggested that a possible causeof the accident could be a fault in signaling. Often such cautious expressions are used to hide the reality or the gravity of a situation. To a layman it may appear that signal failure was the very likely cause of that Metro accident. The skepticism about driverless Metro cannot be dismissed as totally misplaced.Imagine the consequences if a regular Metro train, overflowing with passengers, meetswith an accident. Despite all the praise—much of it deserved--that is heaped on the Metro service, which is a boon in the commuters in a city of permanent traffic jams, the fact is that breakdowns in Metro services have been frequent because of multiple reasons. Signal fault is one of them. Problems in the overhead wires, caused by rain or perching birds, have caused many a break down but, touchwood, no serious mishap; except the frequency of suicides on Metro tracks.
The recount of these problems does not mean that the Metro service is being run poorly. The breakdowns or interruptions in servicecan be described as unexpected. But that is precisely the reason for worry. Unexpected problems have a strange way of cropping up in India much more often than anywhere else. When there is a human hand at the wheels it is still possible theoretically to avert a big mishap because human mind has a better computer than the ones used in running train services and offices.Most projects—not the Metro—are delayed because of 'unexpected' problems. Delays and obstructions which were not anticipated are blamed, be it something as simple as a social or business meeting, delivery of goods, response from a service provider and so on.Alright, running of a train or the Metro cannot be compared with anything else. But can it be denied that experience so far has shown that many 'snags' that affect the Metro were not anticipated when Metro was introduced to Delhi? The question should be looked in the context of the reputation for inefficiency in performing duty and a 'chaltahai' (anything goes) attitude in the country.After every major mishap we hear of 'high-level' inquiry which submits a report that is generally thrown into the dustbin. The fault, if detected by the inquiry committee, is generally not removed. God forbid, if the Metro has an accident it can be very ghastly.It cannot be inferred that a driverless vehicle will be safer if 'human error'has been responsible for most mishaps on the road as well as railway tracks. Driverless cars, tested abroad, have not proved to be safer than cars driven by humans. Tests have shown that they are also prone to accidents. That should be considered more seriously in India.
Almost without exception, drivers in most countries in the developed world follow the driving rules faithfully, whether the road is crowded or empty and irrespective of the time of the day. You can find a car coming to a halt at the traffic light even when no other vehicle is in sight nearby. In India people who follow the driving rules are cursed and seen as nuisance by most drivers who are always in a hurry.A train driver can also—and sometimes does—jump the 'traffic' light when he is either half asleep or is unable to see properly in dense fog. The result is an accident which may or may not be serious. The automatic signals that the Metro will follow can check an accident because it will not have a dozing driver or be passing through fog. But it can develop a 'snag' if it is not maintained properly by an alert staff.Keeping up with advanced technology in automation is fine. Driverless cars and trains is part of that phenomenon. But if the quality of trained manpower can be questioned its introduction in the country will not look very reassuring.