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June 2015The monthly newsletter by Felgall Pty Ltd

My Word

Autonomous Vehicles

For several years now Google have been field testing cars that can drive themselves. A recent report that I saw stated that these vehicles have now been involved in 13 accidents, mostly other cars running into them from behind but in every case the cause was due to the actions of the driver of the other vehicle. They have also reported on the many stupid things that these cars have seen drivers in other cars do such as turning onto the wrong side of a dual carriage-way and so driving on the wrong side of the road, reading a book or playing a musical instrument while driving, and lots of cars running red lights and so almost colliding with other vehicles. Google have said that running red lights is so common they have built a delay into their cars so that they don't start immediately on the green in case someone is stupid enough to run the red light in the other direction. They also reported that one of their cars was clever enough to not go on a green light when it identified an ambulance approaching the intersection.

Other companies are tackling the problem from a different direction and actually have cars on the market that are able to act autonomously in certain situations. Perhaps the farthest advanced of these comes from Tesla whose electric car is able to drive itself in heavy traffic and can change lanes at the tough of the indicator. These Tesla cars have software upgrades sent to them via wifi and so can gradually become more autonomous as the software caters for it.

Other manufacturers also have cars that can act autonomously in some situations. For example BMW now have a car that can park itself. Once you get it in the entrance of a parking station it is capable of locating an unoccupied parking space and proceeding to park itself in that spot. Many new cars have some form of autonomous operation even if it is something as simple as a collision detection system that applies the brakes of the car if you don't react quickly enough.

There are a number of issues that fact those developing autonomous cars and in many ways the complications they face now are far greater than will exist if/when all vehicles on the road are required to be autonomous. Perhaps the biggest issue is the artificial intelligence decision making system that these vehicles require.

First let's look at some of the advantages that these systems will have over a driver. A driver can see in one direction at a time and need to turn their head and use mirrors to see what is happening all around them whereas an autonomous vehicle can see in all directions at once. This means that the autonomous vehicle has a greater awareness of what is happening around the vehicle and so will have more time to react than a driver who may not see something straight away or even at all. Autonomous vehicles will also have a shorter reaction time and will be able to react far more quickly to things they see than a driver would. These factors mean that the autonomous vehicle has a greater chance of avoiding an accident than a driver would even in those situations where it would be the other vehicle's fault.

One recent article I was reading discussed the potential for complications in the vehicle's decision making process - those situations where an accident of some sort is unavoidable and where the vehicle will need to choose what type of accident it should be. An example would be where the vehicle is driving down the road and an animal or child runs out into the road directly in front of the vehicle. The vehicle would need to decide if there is time to stop. It would need to decide if there is a clear lane on either side it could move into to avoid the collision. It would need to decide if the area alongside of the road was clear enough for the car to safely run off the road without colliding with a tree or fence. It would need to decide whether traffic coming the opposite way would have time to stop if it swerved into the opposite lane. If there was not time to stop and there was a constant stream of traffic going the other way on one side and lots of trees on the other it would need to decide whether to hit the animal/child or to hit a tree and so potentially injure the passengers in the vehicle. People don't normally think of these situations in advance and have a plan for dealing with them, they just react in whatever way seems best at the time.

Another article I saw had a comment on it from someone who suggested that on roads where there are lots of cars and trucks constantly changing lanes that autonomous vehicles would not be able to cope with all the movement safely and should not be allowed on those roads. My view is that the autonomous vehicles would actually be able to handle those situations better than a driver could simply due to their better view of exactly what is happening around them and better reaction time.

Another issue that I saw raised was that of following the law exactly or knowing when the law is inappropriate and taking a more appropriate action. If someone parks illegally so as to not leave enough space to pass without crossing the double lines in the middle of the road should an autonomous car simply wait behind the illegally parked car until it is moved or should it cross the double lines when safe to do so? Should it increase speed above the speed limit in order to avoid a collision with another vehicle?

Once enough vehicles operate autonomously, further possibilities will open up. Driving the vehicle yourself could be banned on selected roads. These roads could then have different road rules apply given that all of the vehicles will be operating autonomously and will see everything happening around them and have equivalent reaction times much faster than a person. They might even be in communication with one another so that they know what the vehicles around them are intending to do even though they haven't yet signalled that intention in any way that would be visible to anyone in the vehicles. Speed limits need no longer be applied on such roads with all of the vehicles travelling at whatever speed it is safe for them to travel at. Where two such roads meet at an intersection, traffic lights would not be required as the traffic flow could be determined by the vehicles themselves based on the number of vehicles approaching from each direction.

There are many issues that are yet to be resolved for the operation of autonomous vehicles including many that no one has yet considered (particularly in connection with the future situation where all vehicles on a road are autonomous). This will not prevent autonomous vehicles being available for sale before very much longer (some months ago a number of reports I saw suggested five years whereas more recent reports are more likely to suggest two years). This doesn't mean that all of the problems will be solved by then but the testing that Google has performed so far tends to indicate that even if there are many problems still to be solved, autonomous cars are already safer to operate on the road than ones that rely on a driver.

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The new version of JavaScript that is about to be released any day now means that you can probably expect to see a few more articles on JavaScript added in the next few weeks to go with those recently added. I will try to add articles on other subjects as well but I am not receiving as many questions lately as I used to and so have less of an indication on what sorts of things you want me to write about.

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