Internationalizing Autonomous Vehicles

Kyle Jepson asks:

I live in Boston. All the roads here are frighteningly narrow and windy. The street I live on, for example, is technically a tw0-way road, but it’s so narrow (and so lined with parked cars — yet another problem that autonomous vehicles will solve) that, whenever two cars pass each other going opposite directions, one of the two drivers has to pull over well in advance of the meeting if they want to avoid a collision (or having to back up). Is this the sort of thing current self-driving cars can handle, or is this a problem for future iterations? (I recognize this is a corner case, but in Boston, it’s our status quo.)

I think of this as a two-part problem: partly communication and partly internationalization. I realize Boston is in the United States, but the driving customs that Kyle is describing as basically foreign to most American drivers.

Both of these problems are really hard, and so the short-term answer will probably be geo-fencing. Essentially, the self-driving system will refuse to go on certain streets if it knows it’s going to wind up in situations like Kyle describes.

Depending on how the car is designed, there may be an option to shift the car into human-driver mode, and let the human driver navigate the narrow streets. Or the computerized driving system might just treat that road as unnavigable, the same way a human driver would normally treat a bike path as unnavigable in a car.

Long-term, vehicle-to-vehicle communication will eventually solve the communication problem, although it’s possible some sort of vehicle-to-human communication system might emerge to help human drivers and computer drivers share those roads.

The internationalization problem is more a function of economics than anything else. Right now, cars are learning the driving customs of California and Michigan and Germany and Japan, because that’s where the self-driving car development is taking place.

Over time, cars will learn the driving customs and rules of the entire United States (which are mostly uniform, with some exceptions), and then expand internationally.

Where internationalization might become pretty difficult is in countries where the formal traffic laws diverge widely from accepted customs. For example, when I lived in Brazil, I quickly learned that it was custom to fit two cars into a single turning lane. Even in the US, it’s widely accepted to exceed the speed limit on the highway and to fail to come to a complete stop at stop signs.

Most of the time it will probably be okay to program the car to follow the letter of the law, but occasionally engineers will discover that trying to diverge from accepted driving patterns has a big cost.

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