Learn­ing how to share the road

The tough­est chal­lenge for to­mor­row’s self-driv­ing cars? Hu­man driv­ers

The Hamilton Spectator - - BUSINESS - TOM KRISHER

DETROIT — In just a few years, well-man­nered self-driv­ing rob­o­taxis will share the roads with reck­less, law-break­ing hu­man driv­ers. The prospect is caus­ing mi­graines for the peo­ple de­vel­op­ing the robo-taxis.

A self-driv­ing car would be pro­grammed to drive at the speed limit, but hu­mans rou­tinely ex­ceed it by 10 to 15 miles per hour. Self­driv­ing cars wouldn’t dare cross a dou­ble yel­low line; hu­mans do it all the time. And then there are those odd lo­cal traf­fic cus­toms.

In Los An­ge­les and other places, for in­stance, there’s the “Cal­i­for­nia Stop,” where driv­ers roll through stop signs if no traf­fic is cross­ing. In south­west­ern Penn­syl­va­nia, cour­te­ous driv­ers prac­tise the “Pitts­burgh Left,” where it’s cus­tom­ary to let one on­com­ing car turn left in front of them when a traf­fic light turns green. The same thing hap­pens in Bos­ton.

“There’s an end­less list of these cases where we as hu­mans know the con­text, we know when to bend the rules and when to break the rules,” said Raj Ra­jku­mar, a com­puter en­gi­neer­ing pro­fes­sor at Carnegie Mel­lon Univer­sity who leads the school’s au­tonomous car re­search.

Al­though au­tonomous cars are likely to carry pas­sen­gers or cargo in limited ar­eas dur­ing the next three to five years, ex­perts say it will take many years be­fore rob­o­taxis can co­ex­ist with hu­man-piloted ve­hi­cles on most side streets, boule­vards and free­ways.

That’s be­cause pro­gram­mers have to fig­ure out hu­man be­hav­iour and lo­cal traf­fic idio­syn­cra­sies. And teach­ing a car to use that knowl­edge will re­quire mas­sive amounts of data and big com­put­ing power that is pro­hib­i­tively ex­pen­sive at the mo­ment.

“Driver­less cars are very rule­based, and they don’t un­der­stand so­cial graces,” said Missy Cum­mings, di­rec­tor of Duke Univer­sity’s hu­mans and au­ton­omy lab.

Driv­ing cus­toms and road con­di­tions are dra­mat­i­cally dif­fer­ent across the globe, with nar­row, con­gested lanes in Euro­pean cities, and an­ar­chy in Bei­jing’s gi­ant traf­fic jams. In In­dia’s cap­i­tal, New Delhi, lux­ury cars share poorly marked and con­gested lanes with bi­cy­cles, scoot­ers, trucks, and even an oc­ca­sional cow or ele­phant.

Then there is the prob­lem of ag­gres­sive hu­mans who make dan­ger­ous moves such as cut­ting cars off on free­ways or turn­ing left in front of on­com­ing traf­fic. In In­dia, for ex­am­ple, even when lanes are marked, driv­ers swing from lane to lane with­out hes­i­ta­tion.

“It’s hard to pro­gram in hu­man stu­pid­ity or some­one who re­ally tries to game the tech­nol­ogy,” says John Han­son, spokesper­son for Toy­ota’s au­tonomous car unit.

Kathy Winter, vice-pres­i­dent of au­to­mated driv­ing so­lu­tions for In­tel, is op­ti­mistic that the cars will be able to see and think like hu­mans be­fore 2030.

Cars with sen­sors for driver-as­sist sys­tems are gather­ing data about road signs, lane lines and hu­man driver be­hav­iour. Winter hopes com­pa­nies de­vel­op­ing au­tonomous sys­tems and cars will con­trib­ute this in­for­ma­tion to a gi­ant data­base.

Some­day au­tonomous cars will have com­mon sense pro­grammed in so they will cross a dou­ble-yel­low line when war­ranted or to speed up and find a gap to en­ter a free­way. Carnegie Mel­lon has taught its cars to han­dle the “Pitts­burgh Left” by wait­ing a full sec­ond or longer for an in­ter­sec­tion to clear be­fore pro­ceed­ing at a green light.


A self-driv­ing Uber car stops at a red light on Lib­erty Av­enue in Pitts­burgh.


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