Artificial Intelligence and Autonomous Automobiles; When the Rubber Meets the Road

By Max Maxfield |

The creators of autonomous vehicles are working on getting those vehicles to understand road signs and stay in their designated lanes, but what's the point?


I was just cogitating, ruminating, musing, and meditating about the combination of artificial intelligence and autonomous automobiles. I've pondered this topic before, of course, but I just realized that I have never truly wrapped my brain around the long-term implications.

3, 2, 1, Go!

Let's start with the topic of traffic lights. Every day there seem to be more and more of these little rascals. My drive to and from work involves a couple of long, straight roads with a few short, wriggly roads thrown in for fun. Just a few years ago, the only traffic lights were at the intersections between the straight roads and the wriggly roads. But then subdivisions and mini-strip-malls started to spring up like mushrooms, along with accompanying traffic lights to facilitate entry and egress. Today, you can barely travel a couple of hundred yards before being obliged to stop for yet another red light.

(Source: pixabay.com)

One thing that really niggles me is when I'm travelling early in the morning or late at night, with very few (if any) other cars sharing the road. I cannot tell you how many times I've been forced to stop at a red light, gnashing my teeth and rending my garb because I'm sitting there twiddling my thumbs, yet there are no other cars going through the intersection.

Where we live, almost every intersection has multiple cameras pointing in all directions. I assume their propose is to record the number plates of anyone going through a red light, but -- truth to tell -- I'm not too sure. I've often thought that if the traffic-light-camera-combos were equipped with machine vision and artificial intelligence, they could recognize when a car was approaching, determine that no other cars were oncoming from another direction, and -- based on these observations -- ensure that a solitary driver (e.g., yours truly) experienced nothing but green lights all the way home.

The point is that I now realize I've not taken things to their obvious conclusion, which is to get rid of the traffic lights in their entirety. Assuming the only vehicles on the road are fully autonomous and are in constant communication with each other, then they can agree between themselves who goes through the intersection in what order.

Of course, seeing cars whizzing past from all directions may make life a bit exciting for the passengers, but I'll bet it won’t be long before we get used to it. Furthermore, in the same way that kids born in the mid-1990s have never known a world without the Internet or smartphones, anyone who grows up in a world of autonomous automobiles won't think anything of it. In years to come, I can imagine telling my grandchildren that I personally controlled a car with my own two hands when I was a young man, and having them not believe me because they've never even seen a steering wheel.

(Source: pixabay.com)

While we're on this topic, when I popped out to the post office earlier today, I ended up having to wait at a railway crossing while an incredibly long train passed by. In an autonomous future, my car would have advanced knowledge of anything like this, thereby allowing it to pick an alternative route. 

Road Signs and Lane Markings

We all get used to thinking about things a certain way. Take road signs for example; everywhere you go you see signs telling you to stop or yield, more signs telling you the current speed limit, and then there are all the signs with street names and suchlike.

(Source: pixabay.com)

Every time I attend a presentation on autonomous vehicles, it includes the topic of them having the ability to recognize and understand road signs, but is this really necessary? The GPS in my truck already knows the names of the roads and the local speed limits (see, A GPS For All Seasons?), so if it were driving itself, then having physical road signs would be superfluous to requirements. 

The same thing applies to road markings, when you come to think about it. Today's cars warn us when we are drifting out of our lane, and the creators of autonomous vehicles are working on getting the cars to stay in their designated lanes, but what's the point?

(Source: pixabay.com)

Of course, humans are used to driving on one side of the road or the other; e.g., the right-hand side in America and the left-hand side in the United Kingdom. We all follow the rules because the last thing you want to see (indeed, the last thing you would see) is a car coming directly at you on your side of the road.

The current intent is for autonomous vehicles to follow suit. However, if all of the vehicles are autonomous, and they are all communicating with each other as to their direction, velocity, and so forth, then following lane markings would actually slow things down.

Take another look at the picture above. The lanes are wider than they need to be to accommodate the fact that human drivers tend to drift around a lot. In the case of autonomous vehicles, you could fit three lanes in the space currently occupied by two, but why have lanes at all? If there's only one car in the vicinity, it could happily drive down the center of the road. In the case of multiple cars going in different directions, it would certainly make sense for them to opt for different sides of the road, but there would be no need for markings on the road itself. And, as more cars come into play, then you could have two streams going one way and one stream going the other way in the morning, and vice versa in the evening, all without any need for painting lines on the road. 

But Wait, There's More

In some big cities you don’t really need a car. Take New York, for example, most of the time you are better off taking public transport or hiring a cab. In other locales, like Huntsville, Alabama, which is where I currently hang my hat, it would be difficult to survive without access to a car. When you come to think about it, however, most cars spend the bulk of their time sitting in one place or another (the garage at my house or the parking lot at my office, in the case of my truck).

Various organizations like Uber are already working on fleets of autonomous taxies. At some stage, it might be that every town and city simply provides a pool of vehicles that anyone can book or hail as and when required.

What about pedestrians and bicyclists? Where do they fit into the picture? I'm afraid I don’t have a clue; my head is already full to overflowing. What do you think about all of this? Are you excited, apprehensive, disbelieving, resigned, or some other descriptor of your choice?

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  • by  John Beetem

    Max whinged: I cannot tell you how many times I've been forced to stop at a red light, gnashing my teeth and rending my garb because I'm sitting there twiddling my thumbs, yet there are no other cars going through the intersection.

    "Impatience is a sin that punishes itself."
    • by  Max Maxfield

      @John: "...Impatience is a sin that punishes itself..."

      Judge not, lest ye be judged LOL

  • by  Max Maxfield

    @John: "...Impatience is a sin that punishes itself..."

    Judge not, lest ye be judged LOL

  • by  John Beetem (edited)

    I highly recommend a recent article in IEEE Spectrum: "The Big Problem With Self-Driving Cars Is People... And we’ll go out of our way to make the problem worse"  It's about the unintended consequences of self-driving cars and how just a few selfish self-driving car owners can make thing dramatically worse for everyone else.  For example:

    "Suppose someone is going to an evening event without much parking nearby. And suppose autonomous cars are always prowling neighborhoods waiting for their owners to summon them, so it takes a while for any particular car to get through the traffic to the pickup location. Then the members of a two-car family may send one of their cars earlier in the day to find the closest parking spot that it can, then rely on their second car to drop them at the event and send it home immediately. When the event is over, their first autonomous car is right there waiting for them. The cost is foisted off on the commons, in the form of a parking spot occupied all day. (Oh yeah, and by the way, with double the greenhouse gases emitted.)"

    Let's say a hundred event-goers get the same idea.  Not very pretty.  It doesn't scale.


  • by  Max Maxfield

    @John: "...Let's say a hundred event-goers get the same idea.  Not very pretty.  It doesn't scale..."

    The solution is simple -- ban all public events! :-)

    I agree that there will always be new problems to go with new solutions -- but this one really doesn't seem to be insurmountable (we can mount it when we come to it :-)

  • by  Elizabeth Simon

    @Max

    As a pedestrian, I find the thought of cars zipping merrily through intersections from all directions very frightening.

    I'd feel more comfortable if I had any confidence that an autonomous car could see me and would react appropriately. Unfortunately, detecting pedestrians and bicycles is much more difficult than detecting cars so I think we've got quite a ways to go before we can give up traffic lights and signs.

    On the other hand, I'd bet that you wouldn't be nearly as impatient about waiting at a light  if you were immersed in a good book or dictating your next blog or some such.

    I personally look forward to a day where I can step in the car, tell it my destination and relax while it gets me there. This is particularly true if my destination is several hours drive away.

  • by  Max Maxfield

    @Elizabeth: "...I'd bet that you wouldn't be nearly as impatient about waiting at a light  if you were immersed in a good book..."

    That's true -- I always have a book and a notepad on me -- just stick me in a corner with my book and I'll be happy for hours :-)

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