Self-driving cars are all the rage these days, and everyone from Google to Ford is building one.
These slick robocars are just a few years away, we’re told.
Trials are underway in Singapore.
And you can even take a ride in a prototype, as my colleague Biz Carson recently did, to experience the thrill as the vehicles pilot themselves on freeways and streets, steering around cars and magically stopping at red lights.
Snow and ice are still a challenge, but that’s just a matter of refining the technology.
When I travelled to Vietnam for the first time in August however, it didn’t take very long for me to see that there’s a much bigger and more fundamental problem facing self driving cars.
Take a look at a typical street in the capital city of Hanoi:
To anyone accustomed to driving in the US, this scene looks like pure chaos. Instead of traffic lights and polite yielding by drivers, the road is a free-for-all where every driver does whatever they want. Miraculously, they mostly avoid crashing into each other.
Humans rely on a variety of subtle cues, both visual and auditory, along with the brain’s amazing parallel processing capabilities, to pull this off.
But self driving cars are working with a much more limited set of tools. Earlier this year, a Google self-driving car collided with a bus at a Mountain View, California intersection because the car mistakenly assumed the bus would stop or slow down.
On the streets of Vietnam a self-driving car will need to make hundreds of these kinds of on-the-fly predictions.
And with dozens of motorbikes, cars, and pedestrians all independently moving according to their own rules, and no one clearly yielding, it’s easy to imagine a self-driving car getting overwhelmed and freezing in place, afraid to make any move.
See you in a decade
Does that mean self driving cars are doomed?
Carnegie Mellon professor Raj Rajkumar, one of the world’s leading experts on self-driving cars, says that traffic patterns like in Vietnam, as well as China and his native India, pose a big challenge for autonomous vehicles.
Eventually, he believes technology will be able to handle it. But it’s going to take a long time to get there. More than a decade, reckons Rajkumar.
“Sensors on self-driving cars will have some inaccuracies to deal with, and also will require a good amount of computing power. Designing, implementing and testing these will take time,” he says.
Perhaps more importantly, Rajkumar explains, the industry will need to “decipher” the way traffic works in places like Vietnam. Unlike in the US where drivers obey clearly established rules of the road, drivers in Vietnam use implicit rules.
“For example, if I am moving in a direction at a certain speed, I have ‘the right of way’ in a certain region. Others respond accordingly by slowing, stopping, or turning. There is constant monitoring, adaptation and reaction. Everybody ‘subconsciously’ knows how long it would take to stop oneself (be it a vehicle, cart or human) etc. to avoid an accident. Beeps and horns play a major part. Eye contact makes a difference. All parts interact and play a role.”
These operating “rules” need to be deciphered, and encoded into the system used by self driving cars. How long do you think that will take?
So what’s the answer?
One idea for handling this is a system Rajkumar has worked on with GM that involves special “vehicle to vehicle” and “vehicle to pedestrian” technologies. Basically, it’s technology that connects all the cars and people on the road so that they can automatically communicate with each other.
Here’s what that might look like:
But even Rajkumar acknowledges that a lot of things would need to happen for this kind of system to become a reality. It only works if every car and every pedestrian is equipped with the right technology and that’s not easy to do.
Integrating the technology into phones would be one way to spread it around, though even that will take a while. Regulations could also help.
Of course, places like Vietnam are not the first markets that the industry will cater to, so designing systems that handle its traffic situations won’t be a priority.
The self-driving car may be a hit on Silicon Valley’s orderly avenues, but the world won’t be taking its hands off the steering wheel anytime soon.
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