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HASSO HERING

A perspective from Oregon’s mid-Willamette Valley

Robot cars and blind corners

Written December 13th, 2017 by Hasso Hering

Landscaping is nice, except when it keeps you from seeing onrushing traffic.

Autonomous vehicles are the next big thing in transportation, they say. Oh really? I wonder how a self-driving car would handle a blind corner, like the one at this driveway on Ninth Avenue in Albany’s Periwinkle Plaza.

A magazine story I just read says that Waymo, a subsidiary of Alphabet, Google’s parent company, is operating several fully autonomous vans — without drivers at the wheel — in Chandler, Ariz. That suburb of Phoenix is said to be ground zero for the technological revolution that’s about to transform personal transportation.

Almost all traffic crashes are the result of human error, so it’s tempting to believe that cars that drive themselves without our help will be a big advance. The vehicles now operating in Arizona, ferrying people around town, are able to see several hundred yards in all directions at once, and of course they are programmed to observe all traffic laws at all times. Sounds pretty good.

But I’m wondering: Can they see around corners? Or, if they can’t, will they just sit in places where they can’t see and wait for a human to give them a hand? A human would take a chance and nose out into traffic. But driverless cars would have to be programmed to take no chances at all.

I would guess that the computers in autonomous cars know all the streets, just like the current GPS-based systems. Would that really work? The other day I discovered the mapping app on my phone and asked it to give me a route to town. The route it chose would have had me making a left turn onto Highway 20 at a time and place when that’s either impossible or hazardous. That would be no good in a car without a driver deciding to take a more sensible route.

The forecast for the valley just now is predicting freezing fog and low visibility. If you rely on a car that drives itself, would you trust it to take you to work under conditions like that?

On the busy curved part of the couplet leg of Ninth Avenue in Albany, when it has rained in the morning, the lane markers cannot easily be distinguished from the many glistening bands of asphalt used to fill cracks in the pavement. Would the sensors of robot cars stay within the lanes when they can’t tell where the lanes are?

I could be wrong, but my guess is that self-driving cars are farther away from everyday use than their enthusiasts predict. (hh)



8 responses to “Robot cars and blind corners”

  1. John Hartman says:

    Thank you, Hasso, for that upbeat, inspirational report on technology. Given the consistent degree of stupidity displayed by human drivers, it is hard to imagine that a robot will do any worse. And when will we see autonomous bicycles so that we no longer have to suffer the arrogance of scofflaw bike-riders who seem to care not a lick for traffic laws.

  2. Tim says:

    I will trust the advanced sensing systems of autonomous vehicles any day over average adult vision. Cars don’t just have cameras but also radar and could potentially see through the overgrown shrubs you show. As these vehicles become more ubiquitous in our society, we may even see sensors or devices embedded in road surfaces that will interact with car sensors (i.e. lane dividers, etc.).

    Also, today’s advanced navigation apps are capable of rerouting cars around congested areas, road construction, and wrecks.

    It’s a lot closer than we think.

  3. DSimpson says:

    I am confident that the issues you mentioned will be worked out. As Tim mentioned, the vehicles are using radar in addition to regular cameras, which makes them far safer in low visibility conditions than human eyes.

    I think a trickier issue to figure out will be the ethical ramifications of semi or fully autonomous vehicles making life or death decisions. When a human is at the wheel and makes a split-second decision between a head-on collision, driving into a lake, or running over a kid on a bike that has darted onto the street, we can sympathize with the outcome as a matter of chance or fate. When an engineer makes that decision, years in advance, we might not be so sympathetic.

  4. James Engel says:

    Better not mess with my rid’in our Harley!!!

  5. Gothic Albany says:

    Just wait till there is no steering wheel and hackers take over your car……

 

 
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