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Friday, August 03, 2007

Autonomous Automobiles

The DARPA Grand Challenge was a 132 mile race for autonomous (robotic) vehicles, sponsored by DARPA. The qualifying winner (turned out to be a team from Stanford) received a $2 million prize.

I recently learned from a colleague who worked on one of the teams that entered a robotic car in the competition that possibly the first robotic car collision with a private vehicle has already occurred. They were testing the robot in a parking lot where somebody had mistakenly left his van. The robot collided with the van in the parking lot.

Apparently, the interaction between the insurance adjuster ("Adjuster") assigned to the case and the owner of the van ("Owner") didn't go very smoothly. Though the exact conversation wasn't recorded, I imagine it might've gone something like the following:

Adjuster: Who was driving the car that hit your van?
Owner: Um, er, well, nobody.
Adjuster: Nobody was driving? Was there anybody in the car?
Owner: Uh - no.
Adjuster: Oh, is this one of those cases where somebody forgot to put on the parking brake...
Owner: Yeah, that's it, the parking brake definitely was not on!
Adjuster: ...and forgot to leave it in gear...
Owner: Um, no, er, well, the car was in gear.
Adjuster: Then why was it moving?
Owner: Well, er, because, um, the engine was running.
Adjuster [looking confused]: The car was on?
Owner: Um, well, yeah.
Adjuster: And it was in gear?
Owner: Yeah, um, yeah.
Adjuster: And nobody was in it?
Owner: Yeah, nobody was in it.
Adjuster: And it rolled across the parking lot and hit your van?
Owner: Um, yeah, that's right.
Adjuster: So did someone start it, put it in gear and jump out?
Owner: No, no, nothing like that.
Adjuster: Okay, so give me a hint. How did this car come to be rolling across the parking lot, engine on, in gear, with no driver?
Owner: Well, er, they, um, asked it to do that.
Adjuster: Pardon?
Owner: They, er, asked the car to drive around the parking lot.
Adjuster: They asked the car to drive around the parking lot.
Owner: Yes!
Adjuster: I'm not following. Who might 'they' be?
Owner: You know, the people who own the car.
Adjuster: And did 'they' talk to the car and say, "Hey car, drive around the parking lot"?
Owner: Er, no, they sent it a message.
Adjuster: Like an email?
Owner: Well, kinda like an email, I suppose.
Adjuster: And the message said, "Hey car, drive around the parking lot"?
Owner: Well, um, it sorta did say that, yeah.
Adjuster: Why didn't the message also say something like, "Hey car, don't hit that van over there."
Owner: It supposed to avoid other vehicles without being told.
Adjuster: So then why did it hit your van?
Owner: I think it just didn't see my van.
Adjuster: See it? The car has eyes?
Owner: Oh yeah, of course! It has lots of senses.
Adjuster: Well, why didn't it see your van?
Owner: It made a mistake.
Adjuster: The car made a mistake.
Owner: Yes, of course, it was an accident, it didn't hit my van on purpose.
Adjuster: And how long have you been under the impression that cars can be asked to drive around, see, think, and "make mistakes".
Owner: Oh, well, for a few years, I guess.
Adjuster: I think you should see a psychiatrist. I know a good one.

Well, maybe it didn't go quite that badly, but I guess there was quite a problem categorizing the accident since there isn't a category for autonomous vehicle collisions. At least not yet.

In a future post, I'll present my predictions for when cars that drive themselves will be available. I'll argue that the technology will be ready in the next ten years or so, but the legal, social, and cultural adjustments could take many decades.


Duck said...

The robotics for a jumbo jet to take off, fly halfway around the world and land all by itself are in production now, but the robotics to drive a car around a parking lot are still in its infancy. That says something about the relative difficulties between the tasks of flying and driving. Yet people who fear to fly probably feel safe driving their car on the freeway. How can human psychology be so bad at risk assessment?

Bret said...

Having respect or fear of heights probably served us well over the millennia and that would explain the discomfort (for at least some people) with the concept of flying.

On the other hand, the relative simplicity of the control problem for flying in no ways implies simplicity or robustness for the numerous mechanical and other systems required to keep a jet aloft and therefore the relative danger or safety isn't readily apparent to the average person. So I'm not totally sure it has anything to do with psychology.

David said...

The issue isn't risk assessment, per se, but uncertainty. The risks of driving on the highway are, for the average driver, well-defined. The risks of flying, for the average passenger, are ill defined.

Also, our very familiarity with driving combined with our relative unfamiliarity with flying can confuse new flyers. For example, rainstorms and unexpectedly dropping a few feet are much worse when driving than when flying.