By on September 2, 2015

Google Autonomous Vehicle Prototype Circa December 2014

Google. While breaking privacy laws seems to be their global sport of choice, they sure do stick to the letter of the law when their autonomous cars are perusing American roads.

Oddly, that’s a problem according to the New York Times, because the rest of us operate our automobiles in a legal gray area, bending the rules to our benefit when we know we won’t get caught.

Google’s autonomous car project is — in its simplest form — four wheels, an array of sensors and software that tells the wheels what to do based on signals from the sensor array. Because that software is programmed in a way that follows traffic law in an absolute form, human drivers don’t know how to react it — and it doesn’t know how to react to humans.

This is because, for the most part, we break traffic laws is small ways all the time.

For example, four-way stops:

One Google car, in a test in 2009, couldn’t get through a four-way stop because its sensors kept waiting for other (human) drivers to stop completely and let it go. The human drivers kept inching forward, looking for the advantage — paralyzing Google’s robot.

If the Google car had been programmed to break the law by not waiting for all other vehicles to stop, it would have made it through the intersection.

But, it isn’t just the autonomous car of the future; drivers are having difficulties with the semi-autonomous features of today found in a number of vehicles, like lane departure warning systems:

Humans and machines, it seems, are an imperfect mix. Take lane departure technology, which uses a beep or steering-wheel vibration to warn a driver if the car drifts into another lane. A 2012 insurance industry study that surprised researchers found that cars with these systems experienced a slightly higher crash rate than cars without them.

Bill Windsor, a safety expert with Nationwide Insurance, said that drivers who grew irritated by the beep might turn the system off. That highlights a clash between the way humans actually behave and how the cars wrongly interpret that behavior; the car beeps when a driver moves into another lane but, in reality, the human driver is intending to change lanes without having signaled so the driver, irked by the beep, turns the technology off.

As difficult as it will be for autonomous vehicles to seamlessly blend in with the current infrastructure — regardless of the condition of that infrastructure — the biggest hurdle will likely be something much more difficult to change: human nature.

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58 Comments on “Breaking the Law Is Safer When Everyone Else Is Breaking It...”


  • avatar
    mmreeses

    Expect op-eds/columns/trial balloons from various people advocating the banning of all human-operated cars in the future. as genuine autonomous cars don’t work if mixed into a world of humans (we’d all be tempted to skip our turn at a 4-way stop if the other dude is reading a paper behind the wheel of his google car or not let in an autonomous car at a merge cuz you know that the safety override will kick in and keep the other guy in place).

    reportedly (from another NYT article, iirc) one of the googlers is nearly messianic about the need for a futuore of fully automated transport as he lost a family member to a car crash.

    • 0 avatar
      qfrog

      What I want to know is that when the roads are at their most fun (snowy and slick) will the AVs do me a solid and pull off to the side and let their passengers hitch a ride? It will be like group B rally with fans closely lining the road while a few capable drivers rip past.

      • 0 avatar
        jmo

        Being able to see in laser, radar, infrared and visible light – why would they need to pull over?

        • 0 avatar
          qfrog

          Right, and those work so well when it is snowing?

          This is a matter of a driver being willing to take risk while that sort of risk isn’t likely to be assumed by the programming of the AV because having a car parking and saying it can not proceed is less scary than having it attempt to proceed and the passenger feeling like they’re in a free falling elevator. Maybe the roller coaster chasers are down with that situation but most meek and pathetic drivers aren’t. These are the same people that want a nose heavy front wheel drive car because it puts the weight over the driven wheels and they want self driving cars because failbook is more stimulating and involving than anything they’ve ever driven.

          • 0 avatar

            V2V comes in during the times when sensors can’t sort out their surroundings with near perfect certainty.

          • 0 avatar
            mcs

            >> V2V comes in during the times when sensors can’t sort out their surroundings with near perfect certainty.

            The sensors can think they have their surroundings perfectly figured out when in reality they don’t. I remember when a system I was developing first encountered monsoon rain. It was bouncing off the pavement and the sensors thought for sure there was a wall in front of the vehicle.

            Another problem with V2V is there is no V2M – vehicle to moose – or any other number of hazards like animals, fallen trees or a flooded underpass. It’s great if the vehicle that went through the flooded underpass and can communicate that it’s more than just stopped and under water, but what if you’re the first guy to go for a swim. Then again, maybe you could equip every underpass with water depth sensors?

          • 0 avatar
            Xeranar

            Radar and Infrared work perfectly fine. Your radio doesn’t die when you get rained on or snowed on. Your localized radar sensors would be just fine. Never mind that with active connective technology every other AV would be talking with one and other (at a superficial level) and thus you would be just fine.

            We can keep playing John Henry all day long, at the end of the day the AV is going to best you as a pedestrian driver in nearly every condition. You can still out rally it for another decade or so but as chips get faster it’ll beat you there to.

    • 0 avatar
      jmo

      I figure at some point in the future, the average person will no more drive a manually driven car on the highway than they would ride a horse down I-95.

      • 0 avatar
        mmreeses

        i don’t disagree in the eventual future processing power and sensor tech and GPS tech will make in feasible, desirable and cheap.

        but it’s one thing that people choose AV on its merits. It’s another thing if government bans human-operated cars as a de facto subsidy to AV makers to speed up AV adoption.

        given the status of the tech, AV needs either a lot of infrastructure addons to the current roads (very unlikely cuz of costs as others said) or the banning of human operators (also very unlikely, but i’d bet more likely than your state/the Feds spending hundreds of billions for the infrastructure improvements).

        just sayin’ never underestimate the potential of any public policy idea from going viral, picking up backing/funding by some interest groups/corporations and then touted as brilliance by your neighborhood politician.

        • 0 avatar
          Xeranar

          Ah the old ‘gubmit takin’ way mah rights!’ argument. So in a world where AVs are better drivers than 95% of us 99% of the time you still want to drive around your completely outmoded vehicle for what? To wreak havoc on the local infrastructure? This always gets into the complicated issue of individual v. communal rights. Your need to still drive ‘individually’ puts EVERYBODY ELSE at risk.

          Lets be straight though, nobody is going to ban human-driven cars within the next two decades. By the time you’re at retirement age AVs may be the standard but that’s unlikely to occur anytime soon. That being said, again I welcome them because I would rather autocross and have fun than waste an hour of my life forcing myself to be aware of every other jackass driver on the road during a commute where I could be reading and becoming better informed.

          • 0 avatar
            Erikstrawn

            Preach it! Lately I’ve noticed that EVERY drive I make, someone in front of me drifts or swerves into my lane. On my way to work this morning two drivers in a row were having trouble staying awake and kept drifting their lane and swerving back into place. I WANT AVs! Like horse racing, auto racing will still be a thing.

      • 0 avatar
        Syke

        And if we’re actually on I-95, I’m all for it. Local feeder roads, not so much.

  • avatar
    Master Baiter

    Another one of the 347 reasons why self-driving cars are a complete waste of time and money.

    Unless and until dedicated roads are built, this will remain a pipe dream. And such roads won’t be built any time soon, since what little public money is not spent on retiree pensions is spent on six-fugure salaries of prison dentists and Directors of Diversity and Inclusion.

    • 0 avatar

      …or governments just ban people from driving manually on public roads and make individuals bear the burden of the AVs at their onset.

      • 0 avatar
        ajla

        Yea, that will happen never.

        • 0 avatar

          I bet it will.

          “While no city ever took such drastic action as banning horses completely from its boundaries, many cities did eventually forbid them the use of certain streets and highways. But in the long run the horse’s opponents triumphed without recourse to legislation. The number of horses in cities dropped sharply as the automobile and the motor truck rapidly gained popularity, although the number of horses in the nation stayed high until the 1920’s (there were 20,091,000 horses reported in the 1920 census).”

          http://www.banhdc.org/archives/ch-hist-19711000.html

          Just like with horses, local and state legislators will likely make certain roadways “autonomous only”. If you want to take your non-autonomous car from Point A to Point B, there’s a network secondary roads running in the same direction. And guess what? You can share many of them with horses!

          Take your pick.

          • 0 avatar
            ajla

            I was disagreeing with your “at their onset” phrasing. It isn’t like the Model T came out and the next year horses were banned.

            Manual driving might one day be outlawed, but it won’t be until AVs have gained a HUGE market share. And that will likely take years.

            The government at the federal and state levels are not going to tell a huge swath of people that the $40K+ machine they financed over 7 years is now worthless and they need an AV to personally travel. You yourself are shopping for a new car right now. You really expect it to be banned anytime soon?

            There will be a period where AVs and manual vehicles need to share the road.

          • 0 avatar
            Xeranar

            Technically we could see a 2-3 year phase period where existing autos are outfitted with the sensor packs and cameras to make them viable. But again, its unlikely to occur for another two to three decades at the current speed of design and manufacturing. We’re more likely to see autonomous controls become a feature on cars for a decade where ACV take over in congested cities and at certain automated situations and then when they hit normalcy we’ll see steering wheels disappear completely and simply be AV all the time.

    • 0 avatar
      Sigivald

      Or people fix the software so they can survive around normal human drivers…

      It’s not exactly on the order of proving P=NP to make a car cope with people inching forward at a 4-way.

      (Hard, yes. “Possibly insoluble”, no.)

  • avatar
    Pahaska

    4-way stops are a pain if there is more than minimal traffic. I pass through two of them most days in evening traffic. State law say the car going straight has the right of way, but you can’t count on a turning car not peeling out across your path. I have been programming for nearly 60 years, but I can’t come up with a rule to code to.

    Potentially, the camera could recognize turn signals and take extra caution, but in Texas, you can’t depend on turn signals except as an afterthought.

    • 0 avatar
      bball40dtw

      In your state, the first vehicle to get to an intersection with a 4-way stop doesn’t have the right of way?

      In Michigan, 4 way intersections are easy:

      First to the intersection has the right of way.
      If two cars get there at the same time, the vehicle to the right has the right of way.
      If two vehicles coming at each other get to the intersection at the same time, and one is turning, well, they have to figure out who goes first for themselves.

      • 0 avatar
        Pahaska

        Basically the same in Texas, except that the traffic code does give the straight ahead car right of way over the turning car.

        It is easy in light traffic; the first there goes first and one on right goes first. That is seldom a problem. Once in a while someone who does not respect the order, but not often. Most Texans are pretty polite.

        Problem arises in after or before work traffic where there is a backup of cars, often on several streets. There can be up to 4 queues and opposing streets then go simultaneously; NS and then EW, etc. Works fine till there is a left turner who does not respect the rule that the opposing car going straight has right of way over him. Since turn signal use is sporadic and the folks likely to turn left into of you are also the ones that don’t tend to use turn signals, it can get kind of dicey sometimes.

        As a programmer, I would have to have a rule to code that and I can’t think of a rule that takes into account the oddballs. Maybe the rule is to route around 4-way stops.

    • 0 avatar
      dal20402

      The rule will be “start creeping and watch for potential conflict.”

      A lot of these issues will be solved by programming the robot car to creep when it’s legally supposed to be stopped. That’s how human drivers deal with these situations in cities, and provided that they don’t cut off pedestrians or crash into anything no one ever, ever enforces it.

    • 0 avatar
      jmo

      ” I have been programming for nearly 60 years, but I can’t come up with a rule to code to.”

      If you had a fleet of AV you’d have a database of all the hard brake applications when someone pulled out and then you could calculate the risk for each intersection.

    • 0 avatar
      Erikstrawn

      The car needs to start rolling forward, realize the other driver is doing the same thing, and then use discretion to cut him off or let him go first. The sensors, computers, and vehicle performance are all good enough to accomplish this in less than a second. The difficulty is finding a programmer who’s willing to put his name on software that plays a little bit of ‘chicken’.

  • avatar
    ixim

    Early days. So, they can program in that bugbear of traffic cops, the “rolling stop “. Who gets the summons? The AV? The dozing passenger/”driver “? Wanted – computers that not only follow rules but can also exercise judgement. We want this?

    • 0 avatar
      Xeranar

      If there is a situation where a human driver was creeping to cut off the AV, it’s always the human driver. Otherwise there wouldn’t be any reason for the citation as all AVs would come to a complete stop.

      Kind of reminds me of the obnoxious red light cameras they have setup in NOLA for some major streets. The cameras snap photos if you’re 6 inches over the white line at a red light, they don’t issue a citation but they’re completely setup to be hyper aggressive. In normal AV situations that white line would be stopped at EVERY TIME by EVERY VEHICLE. It just wouldn’t be an issue.

  • avatar
    Pch101

    “That highlights a clash between the way humans actually behave and how the cars wrongly interpret that behavior; the car beeps when a driver moves into another lane but, in reality, the human driver is intending to change lanes without having signaled so the driver, irked by the beep, turns the technology off.”

    Anyone who has an interest in the subject knows that active safety doesn’t work.

    But driverless cars work as passive safety devices. If they work, then it will because the humans don’t do much to interact with them. The irony with this is that we will demand humans to serve as backups for the autonomous systems, without most people realizing that such systems will be made less effective as a result.

  • avatar

    To be safe, you should probably go the same speed as everyone else is on the highway. For example, if everyone is driviug 70 mph and the speed limit is 65 mpg, then you should go 70 mph

    • 0 avatar
      RideHeight

      Nay to that! Then no one would ever pass me and get out of my life.

      Contrary to many other road-ninnies I’m grateful for left-lane speeding because:

      A) I’m never there.
      B) Speeders cause their accidents far away from me.
      C) Being alone on the road is so serene!

      • 0 avatar
        Sigivald

        I think all davinp meant was “AVs should *break the law* to keep up with traffic rather than being a hazard by going too slow”; err for safety, not pure compliance.

        [Just as in places where Everyone Is Driving 85, you’ll get a ticket for driving 65, because that’s *dangerous*, and safety trumps the speed limit.]

        Which is both sensible and exactly how most human beings drive.

        If you’re going the limit in the right lane, the AV will be passing you on the left, or behind you a safe distance.

        • 0 avatar
          JMII

          Bingo. If I drive the speed limit on the way home I’ll be rear ended because NOBODY is doing the limit. They are going 10 over, well until they see a cop car then they magically slow down to 5 under. If there is an accident on the side of the road everyone is doing 20-30 under just rubber-necking. How does the AV handle this situation? Same thing happens when it rains, everyone drops 10 mph or so (sometimes more), how does the AV react? This is why systems like radar cruise control make so much sense. IMHO the AV should attempt to do the limit but use “fuzzy math” to speed up or down based on measuring the data (other cars, weather, accidents) around it to arrive at established current reasonable speed (whatever that might be).

      • 0 avatar
        ClutchCarGo

        A) I’m never there.
        B) Speeders cause their accidents far away from me.
        C) Being alone on the road is so serene!

        I’ll add:

        D) Speeders ahead of me serve as bait for any radar traps operating up there.

      • 0 avatar
        Xeranar

        There is tons of empirical evidence that proves that it’s speed differences that cause most accidents on highways. In fact the meme-esque ‘too fast for conditions’ driver is actually pretty rare outside of 1-car accidents. I don’t know how often I have people intentionally get in front of me when they see me coming up 10-15 miles faster than they are because they can’t wait 8 more seconds for me to pass and let them get around the one car they’re trying to pass by 2-3mph.

    • 0 avatar
      sgeffe

      I don’t see that happening, period!! These goofy pods will gum up the roads all over, not deviating one iota from the stupid underposted numbers!

      Of course, how that’s different from what all the self-righteous drivers in Ohio do, Lord knows!

  • avatar
    dal20402

    This is just one more situation where data will be collected and a rule will be developed. Eventually, robot cars will start to shade the law in some of the same ways human drivers do, and the reasoning will be that it further reduces the probability of accidents. Robot cars will always have to deal with humans on foot, on bicycles, or on skateboards, and their algorithms will always need to take human behavior into account.

  • avatar
    Fred

    Heck I see people hard on the brakes over the stop line by 10 feet and I wonder if it’s safe for me to proceed.

  • avatar
    Syke

    What I’m waiting for is robot cars to treat yellow light like the law says they supposed to be treated: When green goes yellow, you put on the brake. Not floor it to get halfway thru the intersection before it turns read.

    The number of rear end crashes is going to be a hoot, until human drivers actually start acting at traffic lights like the law expects them to.

    Take a step further, auto-drive vehicles may be one hell of a boon for driver civility. As their numbers increase, human driven cars will have to change their behavior to fall in line with the auto-drives. Boy, I bet there a lot of behind-the-wheel-a**holes who will be incredibly frustrated.

    • 0 avatar
      SunnyvaleCA

      If AVs become popular then traffic will change in a bunch of ways. Around here (silicon valley) traffic is so bad that people try to shift their driving times when possible. If I’m sitting (sleeping) in the back of my luxury AV trucklet I won’t care so much about traffic and so go during worst traffic time and also probably take more trips to various places. Result: rush hour will get even much worse and non-rush traffic will get worse also.

      The above scenario could hasten the transition to AVs. When manual driving becomes more unbearable due to existence of some AVs, people will have incentive to buy one for themselves out of sheer frustration with the existing AVs.

      Another hastening of AVs: AV Uber. If Uber prices were chopped in half due to cutting out the expensive human drivers I don’t know why I would even bother owning a car. Might as well take AV Uber everywhere.

      • 0 avatar
        Reino

        I don’t think traffic will get worse. It will get better, because AV cars will lose that ‘delay’ that occurs when the light turns green but the drivers slowly get going based on the car in front of him. With all AV cars, every car moves in the exact same sequence on a green light. No delays. Less traffic backup.

  • avatar
    SunnyvaleCA

    I think there will develop a “sport” of messing with AVs. Maybe you could just put a single boot (no human attached) in a crosswalk. That would be quite funny, especially as all the non AV cars just go around the immobilized-in-fear AV car.

  • avatar
    Pahaska

    I can safely let my Genesis self-drive much of the time. It keeps a nice interval and stops nicely when traffic stops at lights. It is not perfect, though. I have to guard against the car ahead suddenly exiting my lane while slowing at a light. I will get a hard acceleration and a hard stop because the radar is slow in locking on to the next car ahead. I also need to use some pedal when traffic starts up after a stop because the car wants to return to the at-speed interval and therefore accelerates more slowly that other drivers would like. It is really neat when crawling along in an accident tie up. I can just let it do its thing. I only have to thumb the resume button occasionally if a dead stop lasts over 3 seconds.

    • 0 avatar
      sgeffe

      My Accord Touring’s ACC is a little slow to accelerate back to speed, as well. (The 2016 Accord (MMC, with the “beak”) uses the windshield camera in conjunction with the radar; I might take a “HondaSensing”-equipped Accord out to see if some of the “quirks” have been worked out.)

      The “low-speed follow” piece is one thing I’d love to see on the Honda, but that would add to the cost, and it would take away the exclusivity of being an Acura-only item. It would be handy in school zones, as the ACC in the Hondas shuts off at 22mph, and trundling along barely above a coast at 20mph behind some self-righteous zealot through a school zone at 11am with no kids around wouldn’t be such a chore! (I can’t see how folks in states with 15mph school zones deal with these! I would literally get out and push!)

  • avatar
    John

    When someone can make a computer that can color outside the lines, and still make a coherent, pretty picture, true artificial intelligence will have arrived. These cars color EXACTLY inside the lines, which is not what humans do. Computers far exceed humans in memorization and calculation, they don’t yet in imagination and creativity.

  • avatar
    Lou_BC

    This is perhaps a tough one to explain.

    Corporations for example have official hierarchies, rules that govern how information/communication flows through a company, and even rules that cover personal interaction. Then there is the “corporate culture”. That just happens to be the underlying way things are really done.

    Driving is similar. We have laws that govern what is supposed to happen but humans are social and develop their own ways of interaction. Ever try to drive in a country with a different culture? or even the difference between a small town and a metropolitan centre can be astonishing.

    We are social and competitive. That is reflected in what we do as drivers. An automaton programmed to follow the legal rules cannot detect social cues and the “unofficial” rules of the culture.

  • avatar
    wmba

    If Google somehow makes their vehicles work properly, and everyone had them, there would be NO 4 way stops or traffic lights. The electrons would chat to each other in all the cars and the little bags of sh*t would trundle all the way to work with nary a stop. Welcome to Dullsville.

    Except, the times when the electronic brains get fried by bad weather or a blown tire or bad assembly in Outer Mongolia by ex-yak herders understandably annoyed with having to put in a 12 hour day. Why then – genius! The control is handed back to a human driver who has zero skills due to lack of practise. With any luck, bicycle riders could screw up these systems by acting the same way they do now – erratically.

    Welcome to the drudgery of the worker drone. Monitored all day and night, and forced to keep nose to grindstone. Playing on Facebook on the way to work? Forget about it – the boss wants his sales projections right effing now.

    Is this living? Has anyone thought this through? Of course not.

  • avatar
    Spike_in_Brisbane

    To all those suggesting that autonomous vehicles will be delayed because of the difficulties in handling 4-way stop signs, the solution is simple. Eliminate them like the rest of the civilized world. You just replace two of the stop signs with give way signs. If this is done everywhere, you will know that when facing a stop sign, the other traffic has the give way sign and will sail through first. Simple eh?

  • avatar
    05lgt

    Simple but impossible fix: update the laws to reflect what actually works and is done by all human drivers. This would reduce fines collected, so it’s impossible.

  • avatar
    JohnTaurus_3.0_AX4N

    The same lazy drivers who wonder from lane to lane with nary a signal nor care are involved in more accidents? Amazing.

    You lazily wonder your 64/65 mph Tahoe over with no signal because there is a truck in your lane, right in front of a Mustang going 75 in the left lane (or a minivan going the speed limit at 70), there is going to be conflict sooner or later. Stop texting and/or talking to your BFF, stop paying attention to the kid’s movie, and drive like you mean it.

    I get so irritated with drivers in the south. They tend to drive as though theyre the only ones for miles…IN traffic.
    No need to stay in your lane, use your signal, just use one single high beam and maybe one tail light, dont use your seatbelt, dont stop ever, just pull right out because either that log truck will stop or you can sue his company and retire with the settlement. That way you can buy a 1 ton truck and a boat and take it through the drive-thru or block the entrance to a store while you run in for 45 minutes for your Viagra prescrption and a case of Bud Light.

    People do that stupid crap everywhere, but its so common down here that its shameful. Southern charm and hospitality ends when the car starts. Otherwise the same people are nice, respectful, helpful, and generally good hearted. Too bad a lot of them drive with their head firmly up their rear.

  • avatar
    Lorenzo

    I got hung up on “perusing American roads”. Perusing?

  • avatar
    doublechili

    “Autonomous cars” (ie, transport pods) is just an end-around for universal mass-transit. There will be a messy transition period where the technologies will be mixed (with some nasty results). But eventually independent operation of motor vehicles will be a thing of the past. Ownership too, because there’s no reason to own a pod. That’s pretty much it. Let’s be real about where this leads.

    • 0 avatar
      Reino

      I agree with half of this. Mass transit will always be limited to schedule and destination. People will always prefer a personal vehicle that takes you exactly where you want, when you want.

      However I disagree on ownership. There will still be a market for those who can afford to own a ‘transport pod’. Why share if you don’t have to?

      The one thing I find ironic about car technology is the actual means of movement: we still use wheels & tires, and I don’t see anything to suggest a change from that. Weren’t we supposed to have flying, or at lease hovering cars by now?

  • avatar
    PeterKK

    Not human nature, just human habits.

    Also how is inching forward “breaking the law”?

  • avatar
    DC Bruce

    About half the time when I encounter the “4-way stop problem” one or more of the drivers signals the other to proceed. How is the Googlemobile going to deal with that?

    I’m also thinking of the Air France flight that crashed in the south Atlantic after departing Brazile. The conclusion was that the sensors got confused, the autopilots disconnected and the flight crew had no idea what was going on. They put the aircraft into a stall, and several hundred people died.

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