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Your Car will soon be Driving You to Work

              Last week a major car company announced they were spending $1billion setting up an artificial intelligence and robotics R & D lab in California. I think it’s fairly certain now that production driverless cars will soon be appearing on our roads.

             Toyota is the latest company deciding to throw huge amounts of money into creating intelligent robots, in particular the driverless car. Fear of the unknown (and product liability law) has limited most car makers’ efforts to developing driver assistance electronics. It took a non-car maker, Google to push ahead with the research and bring the dream close to reality. It was only 11 years ago that DARPA in the US really started the ball rolling with the Grand Challenge 2004. That year nobody even got close to achieving the goal of an autonomous vehicle driving 150 miles over desert terrain. By 2007 teams had cars successfully moving around an ‘urban’ landscape. Then Google got in on the act with a seemingly money-no-object project to create a practical robotic car that would be safe to let loose in the jungle that is the modern motoring environment. Progress has been pretty rapid and Google having been running their Lexus-based prototypes in real traffic for some years now (albeit with a human driver who could take over in the event of failure). They’re now at the stage of testing some prototypes of an actual production car.

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 Wikipedia: Michael Shick

              The scale of Google’s achievements has not gone unnoticed by car manufacturers who are pouring money into their own designs and governments seem keen to relax regulations and allow these vehicles onto real roads. How is this happening in spite of the endless discussions in the press about safety and the morality of an ‘artificial intelligence’ making life and death decisions?

Reversing the Logic

                The problem is one of perception: suggest to any motorist that a robot could match or even exceed their driving skills and you will probably get a lot of cobblers about the importance of ‘instinct’ and ‘intuition’, which of course they alone possess unlike all the other idiots on the road. The idea that driving a car requires hardly any prior training under real-world conditions and once you’ve passed a rather feeble test you can go out and learn the rest the hard way, is unique in the world of humans controlling dangerous machinery. The reality is that the average human brain is ill-equipped to control a modern car safely, lacking knowledge, and ‘processing power’ leading to an inability to make correct decisions fast enough in unexpected situations. Now consider the necessary sensory inputs: for the human driver the main sensory organ is the eye. Actually the human eye is a pretty rubbish sensor and the brain has to work very hard to turn the rather limited real-time information available into a useful mental ‘image’ of the scene beyond the windscreen – and only a tiny part of that is actually in focus. The only reason people are allowed to drive cars at all is because when they were invented the conditions were far less challenging than they are now. The cars have evolved, we haven’t. So if the motor car were invented now, who would think of letting a human driver near it? Health and safety regulations would rightly kill that idea at once. Hence reverse the logic: forget trying to create a robot that drives like a human, that way lies carnage. Instead, create a machine to do the job properly, without all the human ‘features’ which are mostly negative; features such as impatience, ignorance, not forgetting arrogant stupidity. Then add a 360° vision system, other road condition sensors and suddenly you have it – a genuinely safe driver.

The Red-Herring of Artificial Intelligence

                It has been generally assumed that a robot tasked with driving a car will require sophisticated Artificial Intelligence. However, once it is accepted that the human mind should not be used as a basis for design for the reasons described above, then it can be seen that current technology should be up to the job. Indeed that is what Google and others have proved to be the case. There is a lot of discussion around the ‘morality’ of decisions taken by the robot driver in no-win situations; given the choice of swerving and hitting a pedestrian or crashing into another vehicle, for example. These sort of ethical arguments always assume that a human driver has some special power to make the right decision (whatever that is). The most likely outcome in this situation is that no decision will be made because the human brain is often way too slow to register the danger when travelling at even moderate speeds. Even if there is time to consider options, it is likely that instinctive self-preservation will be dominant. The machine should be able to determine the least-worst outcome. At this point, of course, more complex examples of ethical conundrums can be introduced: what if the collision choice is between a bus-load of children or a coach full of pensioners? This sort of philosophical argument may be of interest to scholars, but in the meantime, peopled are being crippled and killed as part of the daily routine on the roads. My own view, as an engineer is that development of technology likely to reduce the dreadful cost in deaths and injuries incurred daily just to maintain our ‘lifestyle’, should be pursued with vigour.

The Near Future?

               A timetable for the introduction of driverless cars could look like this, assuming that spurious moral/ethical arguments and tabloid newspaper scare stories don’t prevail.

5 years from now: Optional autodrive will be available on top-end (expensive) cars. Autodriving will be legal, but there will always have to be a qualified driver in the driving seat able to take over manual control. Drink-driving legislation will still apply, even in autodrive mode.

10 years from now: Autodrive is increasingly standard on medium price cars. Insurance premiums for these cars will fall (alright, that should be ‘insurance premiums will rise steeply for all other vehicles’).

20 years from now: Autodrive is a legal requirement for all new cars. Emergency safe-stop button is the only manual control. No driving qualifications are now required. Manual driving will be optional but a licence will have to be obtained involving driver training in a simulator with yearly updates.

                This progression to full automation of all traffic flow actually suggests a reduction in the sophistication of the autodriver software over time: the early models will have to deal with the unpredictable actions of the remaining human drivers on the road. When nearly all vehicles are driverless, they will be communicating with each other and pages of code for dealing with erratic human behaviour can be drastically reduced.

Where are we now?

                Most of the hardware/software is already available with much of it in action on the latest cars. All the necessary actuators for steering, brakes and throttle became electric years ago; initially to provide mechanical assistance and now able to work without human input. Think about Electronic Stability Control (often still called Traction Control, although it’s now much cleverer than that), Hands-off car parking, Station-keeping (a modern version of cruise control that maintains distance between your car and the car in front, Lane assist that stops the car wandering sideways, and so on. Then there is SatNav or GPS; an obvious essential component in any automated transport system. Finally everything can be networked together with the automotive CAN bus which appeared as long ago as 1986. All these gadgets are known as Advanced Driver Assistance Systems or ADAS. Modern high-end cars are full of them, but as the name suggests, they only assist the driver in certain specific tasks.

What components have yet to be perfected?

                I had a ride in a top of the range SUV the other day; it was packed with ADAS and it was obvious ‘only’ two more components needed to be added to make the car autonomous: a vision/radar system to detect and map objects around the car, and of course, a central ‘brain’. The Google car uses laser radar (Lidar) in the form of a rotating scanner in that ‘bubble’ seen on the roof. Its major problem is that it gets blinded by rain and fog. I’m not convinced that many beams flashing around on a crowded road will work either. An entirely passive system based on digital cameras placed around the vehicle giving the autodriver full 360° vision is the real answer. The fusion of data from four or more vision sensors and the interpretation of the resulting image in real-time is a tall order though. Anticipating the demand for such systems in the automotive market, chip manufacturers are already delivering the goods: the Renesas R-Car H2 ADAS can process inputs from four cameras and is available now from RS Components. If you feel ten cameras would be more appropriate then there is the NVIDIA DRIVE PX board featuring a staggering two Teraflops of processor power.

                An interesting item on the list of things to be sorted out is how to recognise people with authority, police officers for example, directing traffic with hand signals!

Safety

                It’s easy to get carried away with the possibilities of all this technology and forget about the question; what happens if it develops a fault, transient or permanent while on the road? Functional Safety has been the subject of legislation for some years now and any designer of automotive electronics needs to be familiar with the requirements laid down in the international standard IEC 61508 and the automotive-specific ISO 26262. Back in 2011 Texas Instruments launched the first of their Hercules range of microcontrollers designed to meet these Functional Safety standards. I published a Design Spark blog featuring the Hercules on the theme of trusting your life to a computer, based on what was obviously the start of a trend.

                Ford is currently allowing their autonomous test vehicle to drive itself around a fake ‘town’ constructed for the purpose. The area under investigation is how to respond if the autodriver is overwhelmed by a complex traffic situation and, well, panics. It’s a good job that never happens with a human driver.

                Limited machine-learning will undoubtedly be incorporated in the autodriver firmware, but full Artificial Intelligence? Best beware the Law of Unintended Consequences: AI could learn bad habits. After the autodriver has seen the umpteenth BMW overtake it in dense fog on a blind bend, it might just think it’s a good idea. On the other hand it could read the number plate, determine that it has a human driver and report the incident to the police.

                Finally, for safety’s sake, it would probably be a good idea to maintain an ‘air’ firewall between the autodriver and the Internet – in other words, drive off-line. Exciting times ahead.

If you're stuck for something to do, follow my posts on Twitter. I link to interesting new electronics components and development kits (some of them available from my employer!) and retweet posts I spot about robot, space exploration and other issues.

Engineer, PhD, lecturer, freelance technical writer, blogger & tweeter interested in robots, AI, planetary explorers and all things electronic. STEM ambassador. Designed, built and programmed my first microcomputer in 1976. Still learning, still building, still coding today.

17 Nov 2015, 15:36

Comments

November 24, 2015 08:50

Boss wrote:

> Nearly every driverless car is shown on wide roads with wide clear lanes, it will
> be interesting when they experience the hedged lanes of Cornwall where overhanging
> plants can be touching both sides of the car! Passing places include pressing into
> hedges and shallow ditches. For some that's their rote to work!
>
Good point. I suspect that until a very accurate all-round local sensor system is perfected (perhaps it has already), the GPS system will be directed to avoid all narrow lanes - the opposite of what it does for human drivers now! Early models should return control to the human driver if they insist on the narrow route.

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November 23, 2015 22:42

"AI could learn bad habits. After the autodriver has seen the umpteenth BMW overtake it in dense fog on a blind bend, it might just think it’s a good idea. On the other hand it could read the number plate, determine that it has a human driver and report the incident to the police." That made me laugh! The concept of a machine biased against the human.....

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November 23, 2015 22:40

Interesting article, agree with all that there is a long way to go though and yes I enjoy driving as well.
Nearly every driverless car is shown on wide roads with wide clear lanes, it will be interesting when they experience the hedged lanes of Cornwall where overhanging plants can be touching both sides of the car! Passing places include pressing into hedges and shallow ditches. For some that's their rote to work!

The eye may be a crude sensor, but coupled with the brain is very powerful... and in Cornwall I can be driving down a single lane and spot a bus over a field and hedges not in my line of sight and think where to pull over, I wouldn't have to meet the bus and then decide!
Need IoT in every vehicle with GPS (and a backup for adverse conditions) coordinates and path transmitted to everything in the vicinity along with high detailed maps and then we will get somewhere!

@saabaus, interesting comment about risk. I wonder how a driverless car situation will evolve alongside human driven cars when these drivers can take risks undertake, speed, cut in at the last moment etc......

Parking will also be a challenge for the human vs machine situation for that last space in the car park...., but at least the human driver will not spend ages looking for a space as they will see the person cutting through the parked cars ready to leave ;-)

But I can visualise that there will be a lot of driver assisting sensor technology from this research that will aid human drivers of the future.

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November 23, 2015 21:45

THere is another perspective which appears to be over looked in most discussions of driverless cars and its not the capabilities of the technology or the ethical situation but lots of people LIKE driving. Im one of them. I like depressing the accelerator, clutch, changing gears, appling the brakes and adjusting my position on the road. I dont like being a passanger as it is.

Driving has a level of risk associated with it and most people (i would argue ALL people) accept a certain level of risk to perform a task wether its driving a car, climbing a ladder or baking a cake.

Takeing human input/choice away may be a "safer" option but at the expense of imense boredom and increased frustion. Which would increase reckless beahviour in other activities.

excuse me while I take a ride in my driverless car to the nearest cliff strap on a prachute and try some base jumping ...... (maybe the car wont be allowed to drive me anywhere that may be consider dangerous)

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November 23, 2015 16:34

Full automation of cars will change the equation between public and personal transport in ways that are not yet fully predictable. The balance could swing either way. The ability to switch to automated personalised transport from a plane or train could make public transport more attractive in some cases.

Once automated, peoples relationship with cars and perceptions of ownership may shift. It depends in part for example whether an automated car is still a status symbol and a personal statement .

With an automated car in communication with other cars and wider systems, automating route choice could be made advantageous to the individual user by providing the shortest journey time. The mass effect could be to dramatically change the efficiency and road capacity equation potentially making the car more efficient than other forms of transport for some journeys.

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November 23, 2015 15:57

cello1000 wrote:
> The debate between people driving cars and computers driving cars is a false choice:
> The debate should be between the safety and efficiency of the automobile versus
> electrified rail, public transportation.
>
> As for cars driving us to work: At the rate jobs are being outsourced in the United
> States, there will be no one left who will have a corporate job to drive to work
> to.

Well, it's the old story: just as you can't un-invent the atom-bomb, the public is generally wedded to the door-to-door convenience of personal transport and no politician anywhere is going to suggest banning the car, climate change or no. Autodriving can massively improve the efficient use of fuel and hence reduce emissions though. Central traffic information and inter-vehicle communication systems will allow smooth control of speed, 'tailgating' will be normal to maximize road usage and so on. As for out-sourcing, someone, somewhere will still want that car....

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November 23, 2015 15:36

lwelch wrote:
> I really wish I could like this article, but only the Google car was identified as
> companies working on this! There are many more companies (ie. Tesla, Delphi, Quanergy,
> Audi, Ottomatika, etc.) working on driverless cars. Google's isn't even the most
> advanced driverless car out there either. Recently, Delphi drove a driverless car
> from San Francisco to New York in driverless mode, the first company to do anything
> like this (See http://www.delphi.com/delphi-drive).
>
> As to your point on LiDAR, you actually have it completely backwards. Vision systems
> are not good at seeing objects in rain and fog because it cannot see much more than
> the human eye can see, LiDAR is great during these times (see below the picture
> on LiDAR at http://delphi.com/media/featurestories/ ... 0Decisions).
>
> The true path moving forward is to utilize multiple types of sensing products (LiDAR,
> radar, and vision) because each is uniquely good at different things. LiDAR for
> rain/fog and long distances, Radar for shorter range, but for obtaining velocity
> of an object and seeing "through" objects such as trees and plants to identify the
> potential danger behind them, and Vision for further classification of the danger
> (ie. size).

I believe I suggested that many more companies than Google were working on driverless carss! I looked at the Delphi reference and found it very confusing. At one point they state that Lidar penetrates thick fog and then suggest it doesn't which is why they say you need radar. A quick trawl on Google pulls up a number of references which indicate that visibility with Lidar is just as restricted as with a vision system. Radar can penetrate fog but is upset by rain. There probably isn't an ideal solution to this problem (yet), but once again, the autodriver will react to the limited visibility by slowing down, unlike its human counterpart who tends to carry on regardless until they hit something, or someone.

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November 23, 2015 15:30

The debate between people driving cars and computers driving cars is a false choice: The debate should be between the safety and efficiency of the automobile versus electrified rail, public transportation.

As for cars driving us to work: At the rate jobs are being outsourced in the United States, there will be no one left who will have a corporate job to drive to work to.

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November 23, 2015 14:42

I really wish I could like this article, but only the Google car was identified as companies working on this! There are many more companies (ie. Tesla, Delphi, Quanergy, Audi, Ottomatika, etc.) working on driverless cars. Google's isn't even the most advanced driverless car out there either. Recently, Delphi drove a driverless car from San Francisco to New York in driverless mode, the first company to do anything like this (See http://www.delphi.com/delphi-drive).

As to your point on LiDAR, you actually have it completely backwards. Vision systems are not good at seeing objects in rain and fog because it cannot see much more than the human eye can see, LiDAR is great during these times (see below the picture on LiDAR at http://delphi.com/media/featurestories/ ... 0Decisions).

The true path moving forward is to utilize multiple types of sensing products (LiDAR, radar, and vision) because each is uniquely good at different things. LiDAR for rain/fog and long distances, Radar for shorter range, but for obtaining velocity of an object and seeing "through" objects such as trees and plants to identify the potential danger behind them, and Vision for further classification of the danger (ie. size).

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November 23, 2015 14:20

Bill Marshall wrote:
> Interesting point, but it comes back to my central argument that the machine is better
> suited to the task of 'seeing' the cyclist(s), analysing the situation without human
> feelings of impatience even anger at the check to progress, and then making a logical
> choice of action calculated to maintain the safety of all parties, Two situations
> come to mind: the truck driver about to turn left (in the UK) unaware of the cyclist
> beside them on the inside, and the car driver coming across a group of cyclists
> on a country road. The 360 degree vision of the autodriver will ensure that the
> cyclist in the first example does not go unobserved and in the second, there will
> be no temptation, not being human, to overtake in a dangerous manner. Not to say
> the self-driving car is perfect, but on balance it has got to be better than one
> controlled by a 'machine' with poor vision and emotional reactions to every adverse
> situation encountered.
>
> Bill Marshall
I very much agree with Bill's points. Automation of driving will be a massive improvement in safety and save many lives and injuries. Can you imagine in any factory a trained operator, let alone children or the elderly, being allowed to work within a few feet of a one ton block of metal travelling at 30mph? This happens on our streets every day and and many are killed and injured as a result. Every day. It is acceptable for purely historical reasons and would not be tolerated in any other situation, even in other methods of transport such as aviation or railways.

As Bill points out, most drivers are already separated from the control of their cars by electronics and presumably don't worry about it. The problem we should be addressing is what happens at the moment when something goes wrong with a human driver? The answer is usually carnage. This happens every day for a long list of reasons such as blackouts, heart attacks, drugs reactions, alcohol, sneezing or many other major detractions or bad driving. It is usually not even widely reported other than for resulting traffic congestion.

Of the multitude, recent tragic cases of carnage I can immediately bring to mind are a group of school children at a bus stop mown down by a car. A recent high profile case is the Glasgow bin lorry ploughing through Christmas shoppers when the human driver blacked out. In Glasgow on a previous year two young female students were killed while Christmas shopping when the human driver of a large 4x4 again had a blackout due to a known condition. Interestingly in both of these Glasgow cases no prosecutions were seen as being necessary.

One area I would disagree with Bill is his predictions on time-scales for adoption. I feel things things could happen a bit more quickly. The first major milestone could be that manual driving will become illegal on motorways. This might happen within ten years. However, this is crystal ball gazing.

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November 23, 2015 14:08

Public transportation solves the whole problem much easier without the need for complex artifical intelligence. We would do better to invest in more light rail systems rather than cars that drive themselves.

Has Toyota, Google, or anyone else asked the general public what they want? Or are corporate elites deciding this is for our own good, the way Standard Oil, Firestone, and General Motors decided it was for our own good to dismantle electrified light rail in the United States after WWII?

Hydrogen fueled cars from Totota do not make thermodynamic sense. Neither do cars that drive themselves. Investing in light rail public transportation makes energy efficiency and road traffic sense.

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November 23, 2015 12:24

I too am a bit sceptical, but not so much about the cars themselves instead the variation which humans are better at evaluating.

Specialised road should be constructed to service these cars and with increasing up take some road should then be split to accommodate both driver-less and standard vehicles.

Although it would bring more complaints splitting roads into 2 section may increase the volume of uptake on driver-less vehicles.

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November 23, 2015 12:02

Interesting point, but it comes back to my central argument that the machine is better suited to the task of 'seeing' the cyclist(s), analysing the situation without human feelings of impatience even anger at the check to progress, and then making a logical choice of action calculated to maintain the safety of all parties, Two situations come to mind: the truck driver about to turn left (in the UK) unaware of the cyclist beside them on the inside, and the car driver coming across a group of cyclists on a country road. The 360 degree vision of the autodriver will ensure that the cyclist in the first example does not go unobserved and in the second, there will be no temptation, not being human, to overtake in a dangerous manner. Not to say the self-driving car is perfect, but on balance it has got to be better than one controlled by a 'machine' with poor vision and emotional reactions to every adverse situation encountered.

Bill Marshall

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November 23, 2015 10:52

As a driver and a Cyclist I have yet to see proof that a driverless car will adequately cope with a group of cyclists. I therefore remain highly skeptical on the subject of driverless cars.

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