Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Autonomous vehicles - my thoughts

The drive towards vehicle autonomy appears to be going hand in hand with the growing popularity of battery electric vehicles. Tesla in-particular are aggressively developing their Autopilot self driving system and many other auto manufacturers are introducing various levels of autonomy to their vehicles. It seems we are on the way to highways full of driver-less cars.

The potential benefits of fully autonomous vehicles are numerous. As the most common cause of traffic accidents is driver error or recklessness, taking the human element out of driving should make road use safer.

At the moment autonomous or semi-autonomous vehicles just have information about the road and other road users that they gather themselves. Typically this information is gathered by an autonomous car using radar, cameras mounted on the car and GPS. It can only see as far as the vehicle mounted sensors will allow it to. As can be seen though from the video clip below, Tesla's are already able to 'see-through' the vehicle in front and detect an unseen hazard.
In the future, vehicles will also be able to garner information about the road from other vehicles in the vicinity and maybe cameras by the side of the road. Your vehicle will be talking with other cars on the road to find out what obstacles might lay ahead around the next corner and timeously take action to avoid them. Maybe all the vehicles on the road will be able to organise themselves so they take different routes to ease congestion but in doing so make the traffic flow smoother and quicker.

Clearly fully autonomous driving is coming, I think though that until every car on the road is autonomous and is able to talk and work with other vehicles on the road, there has to still be some degree of human supervision of the vehicles AI. I think fully autonomous is maybe 15-20 years away and until then we will see more and more autonomous features introduced into cars, like lane guidance and automatic emergency braking.

My main concern with autonomous vehicles is pedestrians. Recently I was driving down a city street and I noticed the pavement ahead was blocked by building rubble which had been piled up. I also saw there was a gentleman the other side of the pile of rubble, walking in the opposite direction that I was going towards the obstacle. I could see he would reach the obstacle in the pavement at about the same time I would pass it. I also realised he was going to step out in the road to walk around it at exactly the same time as I would be passing it. He was just presuming I would predict his behaviour and leave him some room to get past the obstacle, which of course I did. I just wonder if an autonomous car's AI would deduce the same thing. Would it expect the person to wait until it's passed to step into the road? Would it predict, like myself, the movements of the pedestrian and take avoiding action ahead of time?

Obviously pretty much all the research and testing of autonomous vehicles is happening in places which don't have the same anarchistic road culture we have here in South Africa. If the human road users, motorists and pedestrians, are obeying the road rules then it's going to make things more predictable for an autonomous vehicles AI. It'll be interesting to see when Tesla finally gets to this country, how their Autopilot reacts in the bedlam that are South African roads.

Another worry was brought about by an incident I heard about the other day. A driver (driving a conventional vehicle) had to swerve to avoid someone in the road and in doing so ran over and killed several people on the pavement. Obviously the human driver reacted to the immediate obstacle, the man in the middle of the road, and took avoiding action without probably even realising they were going to drive into innocent bystanders. An unfortunate accident. It got me thinking though. If that had been an autonomous vehicle and presume the vehicle was already aware through it's various sensors that there were several people by the side of the road before the incident. Now, suddenly someone steps out in front of the vehicle and there's not enough space to stop in time. The autonomous vehicle has two choices, it can carry on straight and hit (and probably kill) the person who stepped in the road, or it can take evasive action but in doing so it knows it almost certainly won't be able to avoid a group of people on the side of the road. Does it carry on straight killing one person or does it avoid the immediate danger but in doing so ends up killing two or three people?

I'm sure these are only some of the problems the brains behind the various autonomous driving systems are busy trying to solve. However, when a human driver makes an error it's an accident. When an autonomous vehicle has an incident, the blame will fly in all directions. Even if traffic accidents are reduced by 99%, when one happens the manufacturer will be blamed for selling a faulty vehicle. Regardless that the same type of vehicle may have had millions of incident free miles up to that point.

I'm sure one day all these issue will be solved and all cars will be fully autonomous and the roads will be completely safe and nobody will ever have to touch a steering wheel again.

I hope that's not the case.

Sure, it might be nice to have your car drive itself in the morning traffic on your way to work, but an autonomous vehicle will never give you the thrill of actually driving a car. I hope that they'll still be the opportunity for manual control. To feel thrill of putting your foot down on the accelerator and getting pushed back in your seat. The thrill of buzzing along a winding country road. The thrill of holding a steering wheel and having the freedom to point it in whatever direction you like and going there!

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