Can AI help make bet­ter driv­ers out of us all?

▶ With hu­man er­ror play­ing a huge role in deaths re­sult­ing from road ac­ci­dents, man­u­fac­tur­ers are look­ing to self-driv­ing cars. But, Rho­dri Mars­den asks, can their au­to­mated sys­tems make up for a driver’s poor judg­ment?

The National - News - - FRONT PAGE -

Ever since the very first fa­tal­ity was recorded in 1869, cars have posed a mor­tal threat to pedes­tri­ans. In 2013 the World Health Or­gan­i­sa­tion es­ti­mated the an­nual num­ber of pedes­trian deaths on the roads to be more than a quar­ter of a mil­lion. In some coun­tries, the num­ber of fa­tal­i­ties is ris­ing. Ex­perts aren’t cer­tain of the rea­sons; it could be down to the in­creas­ing pop­u­lar­ity of pow­er­ful SUVs, or the dis­tract­ing na­ture of in-car en­ter­tain­ment sys­tems.

But with 94 per cent of the traf­fic fa­tal­i­ties in the US in 2016 at­trib­ut­able to hu­man er­ror, ac­cord­ing to the Na­tional High­way Traf­fic Safety Ad­mis­tra­tion, au­to­mated sys­tems are now at­tempt­ing to make up for our poor judg­ment. Pedes­trian de­tec­tion and au­to­mated brak­ing sys­tems are com­bin­ing to stop cars in an emer­gency, but their ef­fi­cacy is prov­ing hard to mea­sure. Some tests de­scribe them as “in­ef­fec­tive”. Oth­ers praise their “su­pe­rior” per­for­mance. So how good are they, ex­actly? Are they mak­ing pedes­tri­ans safer, or are they mak­ing driv­ers blasé about dan­ger?

Un­der­ly­ing all of these is­sues is the man­u­fac­turer’s profit. Equip­ping cars with the best PCAM equip­ment is ex­pen­sive

Our per­cep­tion of “in­tel­li­gent cars” is con­flicted. On one hand, we’re aware that self-driv­ing ve­hi­cles are be­ing tested around the world, and their very ex­is­tence seems to rep­re­sent some kind of modern mir­a­cle. On the other, any er­rors they make are pounced upon as ev­i­dence of their poor judg­ment. They’re rightly held up to a much higher stan­dard than hu­man be­ings, but they still haven’t reached the nec­es­sary level they need to be at, says Michael Cla­mann, an en­gi­neer at the High­way Safety Re­search Cen­tre, based at the Univer­sity of North Carolina in the US. “Tech­nol­ogy for self-driv­ing cars is very im­ma­ture, and we have a long way to go be­fore that tech­nol­ogy is ready.”

The death of Elaine Herzberg pro­vides dis­tress­ing proof. In 2018, she became the first per­son to be killed by an au­to­mated car when she was hit by a Uber self-driv­ing test ve­hi­cle. Last week, the US Na­tional Trans­porta­tion Safety Board found that the car’s pedes­trian de­tec­tion sys­tem had failed to iden­tify her as such. But while the Uber car re­lied on a hu­man driver to take con­trol if the au­to­mated sys­tem failed, stan­dard cars equipped with such sys­tems work the other way around. Driv­ers are held re­spon­si­ble; com­put­ers merely of­fer backup. And as a backup sys­tem, rather than a con­trol­ling sys­tem, the ev­i­dence is clear; they re­duce col­li­sions and save lives.

The sys­tems have two com­po­nents. There’s ad­vanced emer­gency brak­ing (AEB), which de­tects any kind of frontal col­li­sion – in­clud­ing with other ve­hi­cles – and brings the car to a halt. It works well at lower speeds and it’s set to be­come stan­dard – 20 man­u­fac­tur­ers have promised to in­cor­po­rate AEB into all new cars by 2022, and in the US, it will be a le­gal re­quire­ment from that date. Then there’s pedes­trian crash avoid­ance mit­i­ga­tion, or PCAM, which uses var­i­ous sen­sors to recog­nise peo­ple in the road and trig­ger the AEB ac­cord­ingly. Cam­eras, light de­tec­tion and radar are de­ployed in var­i­ous com­bi­na­tions de­pend­ing on the model of the car. Their task: to cap­ture data and com­pare it with mil­lions of images to de­ter­mine the level of dan­ger to both car and pedes­trian.

PCAM sys­tems have a fear­somely com­plex task, given the lim­it­less num­ber of el­e­ments that fac­tor into an ac­ci­dent, in­clud­ing the weather, the pedes­trian’s cloth­ing, the time of day and much else be­sides. In re­cent weeks, two bod­ies, the Amer­i­can Au­to­mo­bile As­so­ci­a­tion (AAA) and the In­sur­ance In­sti­tute for High­way Safety (IIHS), tested a num­ber of PCAM sys­tems in cars man­u­fac­tured by Honda, Toy­ota, Tesla, Audi, Nis­san, Subaru and many oth­ers. Their con­clu­sions make for con­fus­ing read­ing. In one AAA test, where they sim­u­lated a child run­ning out from be­hind parked cars, 89 per cent of the sys­tems failed at 32 kilo­me­tres per hour, and all of them failed at 48kmh. Mean­while, six of the cars in the IIHS study re­ceived a “su­pe­rior” rat­ing – in­clud­ing the Volvo S60 and the Mercedes-Benz C-Class – but some still hit a pedes­trian dummy. In ad­di­tion, the best per­form­ing cars weren’t al­ways the lux­ury mod­els. There seemed to be only one clear take­away from both stud­ies: these sys­tems are far from fail­safe.

“You can pro­gramme au­to­matic brak­ing to work un­der cer­tain con­di­tions, but there’s al­ways go­ing to be ex­cep­tions to the rule,” says Cla­mann. “No crash avoid­ance tech­nol­ogy is de­signed to ad­dress ev­ery pos­si­ble crash sce­nario – for ex­am­ple if a pedes­trian is cross­ing from be­tween a bunch of bushes, or if there’s a lot of visual noise on the side of the road that makes them harder to see. It’s re­ally im­por­tant to recog­nise that au­to­matic emer­gency brak­ing is not a re­place­ment for hu­man at­ten­tion. If peo­ple became de­pen­dent on these sys­tems in­stead of try­ing to watch for pedes­tri­ans, that would be re­ally bad.”

PCAM tech­nol­ogy will con­tinue to im­prove, as will safety fea­tures out­side the car – im­proved light­ing, smart in­fra­struc­ture, road de­sign and speed lim­its. But one of the big­gest chal­lenges, says Cla­mann, is how to com­mu­ni­cate the lim­i­ta­tions and func­tions of these com­put­erised sys­tems to driv­ers in a way that in­spires trust, but not too much trust. “You can’t say they work per­fectly all the time, but you also need to be care­ful about say­ing that they never work,” says Cla­mann. “If driv­ers over-trust the sys­tem, they could end up crash­ing in the event of it fail­ing. If they un­der-trust it, they might just turn it off, at which point they’ve lost all of the ben­e­fits be­cause they don’t even have it work­ing in the back­ground. Man­u­fac­tur­ers need to get the con­sumer into that mid­dle ground, where they un­der­stand what the lim­i­ta­tions are, while also be­ing able to prop­erly in­ter­pret alarms and get the most out of it. Un­for­tu­nately we’re not quite there yet.”

Un­der­ly­ing all of these is­sues is the man­u­fac­turer’s profit. Equip­ping cars with the best PCAM equip­ment is ex­pen­sive. And over­stat­ing the ca­pa­bil­i­ties of safety sys­tems could be coun­ter­pro­duc­tive; for cus­tomers to un­der­stand them is hardly the best ad­ver­tise­ment for a car. The safety of modern cars, it seems, will con­tinue to be in­ex­tri­ca­bly tied to the psy­chol­ogy of the modern driver, but the mes­sage to that driver is clear: con­cen­trate on the road. In the mean­time, tech­nol­ogy will do its best to help you, but don’t ex­pect it to re­place you. Peo­ple’s lives are at stake.

Shut­ter­stock; Rex Fea­tures

Above, the Volvo S60 scored a su­pe­rior rat­ing for its pedes­trian crash avoid­ance mit­i­ga­tion sys­tems; left, Arnold Sch­warzeneg­ger takes a driver­less taxi in the 1990 film ‘To­tal Re­call’

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