Defensive Driving is AV’s Natural MO, Says Arm

Most people aren’t known for driving defensively.

Whether or not robots can do better is anyone’s guess but Robert Day, director of automotive solutions and platforms at Arm, thinks AVs need to improve upon mankind’s imperfect driving record and that means building autonomous cars that drive defensively – not offensively.

What would an automobile of that caliber look like? Day described a car that keeps a good distance from the vehicles in front of it while the making adjustments in real time. “It’s actually going to change its driving patterns based on what’s going on around it,” Day theorized, adding that humans often fail to drive in a similar manner. “We don’t change our driving patterns – we run into the car in front of us. Or we don’t keep the right distance, or we overtake when we shouldn’t. Autonomous cars will never overtake if it’s not safe to do so. They’ll think, ‘I can’t see past that truck, therefore, I cannot assume that I can overtake safely,’ whereas humans are going to take risks all the time because we’re in a hurry.”

That, Day said, is a key distinction between human drivers and autonomous vehicles. Humans always think they are in a hurry but a robot will never feel that way. It will not contemplate the risk of a ticket or an accident versus the consequences of being late for work. An autonomous car will simply drive when prompted – if it’s late, it won’t have the human instinct to care.

“It’s going to behave like the safest driver on the road,” said Day. “Probably the best driver on the road. We’ve seen studies about ADAS functionality alone, where the driver is still in control, highlighting a reduction in traffic accidents but, once the driver is replaced which is probably the last piece of the puzzle, we ought to see a lot fewer fatalities on the road. How drivers behave is interesting but the autonomous car is going to be safe, and that’s the beauty of all this.”

Building a better human driver

One of the greatest challenges surrounding AV development involves the transition between functionalities. If a car contains both driver and driverless features, how will the two exist without causing chaos? Technically that already exists today in the form of safety drivers who accompany almost every road test. Their presence isn’t a foolproof solution. Will things really be any better if and when the average car owner ends up in a similar situation and becomes a de facto safety driver?

“The reality is, people are trying to build a better human driver,” said Day. “That’s why, at the moment, they’re not really relying on the infrastructure to help. They’re just relying on the sensors to do a better job of deciding what’s around them and making safe decisions. The nice thing with an autonomous car is that if it can’t figure out what’s going on, it will basically come to a stop. Humans don’t do that. Humans swerve around it, beat their horn or whatever.”

Given how flawed humans are, Day does not think it will be that difficult for autonomous vehicles to surpass their capability. Between the barrage of LiDAR, radar, cameras and other sensors, AVs will have greater visibility than human drivers could hope for. Better still, driverless cars won’t be vulnerable to the distractions that lead to so many accidents.

“These things are not going to be traveling 70mph,” said Day. “They’re going to be doing 30mph in San Francisco. So, they’re going to have at least an idea of what’s going on around them. They’re going to know if there’s roadwork and where the lanes are.”

That knowledge will eventually allow self-driving vehicles to move safely even if one of their sensors is damaged, covered by an obstacle or simply malfunctions. “They’re going to have super accuracy of where they are in the world, so if they have to make a decision, they can make it sort of blind better than we can,” Day added. “Because they’re not totally blind.”

AVs won’t replace human drivers overnight, however without mandated roads for each of them, they will need to navigate the roads together. Day isn’t sure how that will play out when a slower, more cautious robot is faced with an onslaught of human-driven cars that frequently move carelessly and/or unpredictably. “Imagine parts of the world where people don’t drive defensively at all, they drive aggressively,” he said. “How are they going to deal with autonomous cars? I wouldn’t program one to drive aggressively just because everyone else is. That’s not going to help.”

Aside from the challenges of dealing with human drivers, Day also examined the computational load that’s currently necessary for AVs to operate. “A lot of the vehicles that are driving around right now literally have a trunk full of server gear, which is okay for prototyping and development,” said Day. “What everyone realized is, if you really want to deploy, you can’t drive around with a trunk full of servers. It doesn’t work from a power or size perspective.”

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