By on June 27, 2017

Kangaroo sign Australia, Image: bluedeviation/Flickr

Who knew strange animals born with a sack stuck to their bellies would prove to be the largest hurdle in the advent of driverless vehicles? In areas where you’ll find marsupials, anyway.

While North American drivers have long grown used to smacking deer with their personal vehicles, it’s a different story in the land of Paul Hogan, Nicole Kidman, and the amiable fellow from Jurassic Park. A full 80 percent of vehicle-animal collisions on that extremely large island and/or continent involve a kangaroo. It now seems the manner in which the limber creatures get around has created a headache for a certain Scandinavian car company — one hoping to lead the industry in hands-off driving.

Volvo has already flung XC90s outfitted with autonomous driving technology to the four corners of the earth: its native Sweden, the U.S., and, starting in late 2015, Australia. The automaker has capitalized on the Australian Driverless Vehicle Initiative for the testing of its self-driving fleet, plying long, lonely outback roads with the aim of finessing its technology into something marketable.

While Volvo expected its available Large Animal Detection system to keep driverless vehicle occupants safe, Australia ain’t Sweden. And kangaroo certainly do not behave like moose or elk. According to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, the manner in which the bouncy animals travel — in the air, mostly — completely confuses the collision avoidance system.

Large animals have a knack for causing bone-shattering, roof-crumpling crashes, so Volvo’s 90-Series vehicles employ a forward facing camera that matches animal shapes to a database of creatures. After measuring the distance between the vehicle using radar, the system automatically applies the brakes as needed. Unfortunately, kangaroos, besides being nature’s pogo stick, are the closest thing we have to a real shapeshifter. Also, they’re rarely ever seen standing motionless.

“We’ve noticed with the kangaroo being in mid-flight … when it’s in the air it actually looks like it’s further away, then it lands and it looks closer,” said David Pickett, Volvo Australia’s technical manager.

Volvo’s system use the ground as a reference point. When a kangaroo leaps into the air while crossing a road, the confused car might assume there’s no need to take evasive action.

“We identify what a human looks like by how a human walks, because it’s not only the one type of human — you’ve got short people, tall people, people wearing coats. The same applies to a roo. If you look at a roo sitting at the side of a road, standing at the side of a road, in motion, all these shapes are actually different.”

The kangaroo detection problem needs a solution before any automaker can sell an autonomous vehicle in that country. Still, Volvo isn’t swayed. Pickett believes the company can overcome the issue and that the eventual proliferation of driverless vehicles will go ahead as planned.

[Image: bluedeviation/Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)]


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18 Comments on “Defiant Kangaroos Stand Firmly in Path of Soulless, Self-Driving Future...”

  • avatar

    Interesting facts and cool insight.

    • 0 avatar

      They really don’t know what they’re doing. Comparing shapes? Seriously? This is one of my areas of expertise and that’s not how it’s done. They’re being cheap and don’t want the costs of doing it right. I can identify pretty much any animal and plenty of other objects in any position. Basically, instead of shapes, you have to look at all of the characteristics of an object. It’s not hard to do, but it ain’t cheap.

      • 0 avatar

        For complete autonomous driving, we need V2V and V2I communications. Now I see we need V2R — vehicle to Roo — as well. :)

        Actually, if the road is aware of animals crossing, it could help with this problem, but only to a point. It wouldn’t be able to help if a kangaroo suddenly jumped out from the bushes.

  • avatar

    On a slightly related note, over the last year or so I’ve begun to see some 18-wheelers on US roads sporting roo bars. Previously, I’d only seen them in pictures and videos of trucks and road trains in Oz; never in the US. Is this becoming a thing now? Are truckers suddenly watching more Australian films, and wanting roo bars?

  • avatar

    The only safe vehicle in a kangaroo crash is one with a built-in, all-encompassing safety cage.
    A ‘roo would almost always win when colliding with a motorcycle. I wonder if the bikies down under disparage car drivers as “cagers”?

  • avatar

    When it comes to pioneering safety systems for autonomous vehicles, I’d expect Volvo to get a jump on the competition.

  • avatar

    This situation must have those Volvo safety engineers hopping mad.

  • avatar

    This doesn’t make sense to me. The equipment is not simply seeing an object of variable shape and tracking its velocity (directed speed) and position relative to the vehicle?

  • avatar

    What about cows? They don’t seem to want to get out the way. Heck, sometimes they will charge you. Get a herd of them on the road and you might be in for a stretch.

  • avatar

    When you say “amiable fellow from Jurassic Park.” do you mean Sam Neill? Because he’s actually a kiwi born in Northern Ireland. We’ll take him as our own though, as we have Russell Crowe, hah.

  • avatar
    George B

    I immediately thought of Courtney Barnett’s lyrics of marsupial roadkill.
    “Taxidermied kangaroos are littered on the shoulders
    A possum Jackson Pollock is painted in the tar”

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