By Lance Eliot, the AI Trends Insider
[Ed. Note: For reader’s interested in Dr. Eliot’s ongoing business analyses about the advent of self-driving cars, see his online Forbes column: https://forbes.com/sites/lanceeliot/]
One of the worst nightmares for any driver is the chance of backing up a car and running over someone.
When you are backing up, it can be very difficult to know what’s behind the vehicle.
There’s a famous video of a crawling baby in Brazil that unbeknownst to the parents crawled behind the family car as it was being backed out of the garage. The car got about halfway over the top of the baby when a person walking nearby pointed out there was a baby underneath.
Getting out of the car, now stopped over the baby, the family members were fortunately able to pull out the baby and did so without much harm having come to the child.
They were lucky.
Statistics were against them in the sense that by-and-large once a backout is underway, whomever is getting hit is likely to be severely injured or even killed.
Per federal data, in the United States alone there are over 200 deaths annually and more than 15,000 persons injured via backover incidents.
As you might guess, young children in the age of 5 or less account for nearly one-third of those deaths (of those, mainly children in the 1-2 years old bracket), while adults over the age of 70 are about one-quarter of the deaths. In essence, very young children and older elders are the most likely major segments of being the victim of a backover death.
I’ve been fortunate to never backover anyone, though I’ve had a few other close calls of varying kinds.
In one case, while in college, a friend of mine thought it would be funny to hide behind my car as I was backing out, and then bang the car and act like I had hit him.
I rushed out of the car and my heart was racing as I really thought I had somehow done this. My mind was instantly thinking about my first aid training and also where the nearest hospital was. When he stood up and laughed, I assure you that I did not consider it much of a joke and was darned angry about the whole thing.
I backed over some of my children’s toys from time-to-time that they had left laying on the ground behind the car.
I wised up to this and would always check behind the car before I started to back-up. They would get trickier though and sometimes the toys were already underneath the car before I started to back-up, and once I began going back I would hear and feel the crunch of some toy getting smashed by the tires or the underbelly of the car. In each case, it made me cringe because it reminded me that it could have been perhaps a human instead of a toy.
Backup Cams: It’s The Law
I’m sure that you are thinking that if we had backup cams on cars then we wouldn’t have any of these deaths and injuries.
First, you might find of keen interest that after years of delays in implementing a law passed by Congress in 2008 requiring regulators to enact legal measure that would require auto makers to enhance rear view visibility, some ten years later, there is indeed a requirement that new cars being sold in the United States must be outfitted with backup cameras (the new requirement was announced in 2014 and the car makers were given four years to implement it, starting in 2018).
For those of you with modern cars, you’ve already likely got a backup cam in your car, so this law doesn’t mean much to you, other than the aspect that gradually there will be a lot of cars with the backup cam.
Eventually, once older cars end-up on the junk heap, all cars will have backup cameras as the newer cars become the dominant proportion of all 200+ million cars of today (this will take many years though to playout).
I guess we can call the “backover” problem solved since we’re going to have all these backup cams – if you believe this you are in for a bit of a surprise.
Turns out that a study in 2016 found that of cars outfitted with a backup cam and the same model of cars without a back-up cam, there was only about a 16% drop in reported backover incidents for those cars with the back-up cam.
Think about that for a moment. You might have assumed that there should be a 100% drop in backover incidents. Having a back-up cam implies no more backovers.
Backing Up Is A Driving Weakness
Well, a backup cam is only as useful as the nature of the driver at the wheel.
It is unlikely that all drivers will actually look at the display in their car to see what the backup cam shows them.
For some people, they get so used to the backup cam that they rarely look at it. I know one driver that looks over his shoulder instead of looking at the backup cam display, which he insists is a better approach than relying upon the backup cam. Good old over-the-shoulder in his book is by far superior to the “useless” backup cam.
Even if the driver does look at the backup cam, they might not notice what the backup camera display is showing them.
A baby laying on the floor behind the car might be laying still and thus there isn’t any movement shown in the display, and thus the driver doesn’t notice the child laying there. It might seem far fetched to you that someone would not notice a baby laying on the ground but imagine that you backout of your garage every morning to get to work, and some mornings you are in a rush, and 99% of the time there’s nothing at all behind your car, and you “know” that the baby is inside the house (or so you assume). All of those factors can allow someone to mindlessly not see what the display is showing.
Another factor is whether an object moves into the field of vision at the last moment.
Perhaps at first, before you start the car, you glance at the backup cam display, and mentally make a note that there’s nothing behind you. So, you put the car in reverse and you take your eyes off the display. You look over your shoulder, or maybe in the rearview mirror, and begin to backup. You are feeling confident that there’s nothing directly behind you.
Using the story of the Brazilian baby that crawled behind a car, imagine if the baby was at the sides outside the view of the cam initially, and managed to crawl behind the car at the most inopportune moment. This could happen in a few split seconds of time.
Of course, we also need to consider the field of vision of the backup cam as key to this too.
Depending upon what kind of backup cam you have, and how it is mounted, you can have a narrow view or a wide view. You can have a view that sees down to the floor, or a view that is more of an upward look. There can be blind spots that the backup cam does not show you. The backup cam can also get obscured with dirt or other obstructions. Making assumptions that the backup cam gives you an all-knowing all-seeing vantage of what’s behind the car is a mistaken belief.
Furthermore, some backup cameras allow you to have a variety of vantage viewpoints, and you as the driver need to select the one that you want to see.
Some drivers, being lazy or just not attuned to the multiple views, have a tendency to leave the display set to a particular view. The driver doesn’t rotate through them each time they do a backup operation. Most drivers become complacent about backing up when in a familiar setting. If you backup each day at your driveway or garage, you become accustomed to doing so. One sobering statistics is that by-and-large the person injured or killed is a family member or similar relation to the driver.
In essence, most of us will really only study the display of the backup cam when we get into dicey situations.
You are at the grocery store and need to backup out of your parking spot. You saw that children were wandering around the parking lot and playfully having fun. All of a sudden, you devote your attention to the backup cam. Or, you are backing up and it’s a really tight space situation, and so again you are on your alert and pay special attention to the backup cam display. The rest of the time, it’s there but you don’t put any mind toward it.
Automation To Aid The Backing Up Driver
If the backup cam alone won’t get the job done, I am sure you are thinking that let’s put some automation onto the task.
Indeed, there are some backup cam systems that have an alerting feature. If the backup cam detects an object in the field of view, it will make a tone or some other alert inside the car to let the driver know. This could definitely help for those drivers that aren’t rigorously always studying their backup cam.
In addition to an alert, or in lieu of an alert, another kind of automation is an emergency braking system for backover prevention or mitigation purposes.
If the emergency braking system detects an object within the field of view, and if the car is backing up and in motion, the emergency braking system acts like a collision avoidance system and stops the car, doing so regardless of what the driver might try to do. Automatic emergency braking systems while in forward motion are becoming increasingly common on new cars and will become an auto industry recommended requirement for all new cars and light trucks sold in the United States starting in 2022. This though does not apply to backup emergency braking systems.
Here’s the story so far.
We know that backovers are a deadly problem.
We know that having a backup cam helps to reduce the number of backovers, but doesn’t curtail it entirely.
We know that if you had an alert coupled with the backup cam, it would likely further reduce the backovers.
If there was also an emergency braking system that applied to backing up, it too would likely even further reduce backovers. As they say, we have the means, but we don’t quite yet have the willpower.
There is a cost to putting in an alert system and an emergency braking system for backover purposes, and society hasn’t reached a point where it wants those so much that it has demanded that they be put onto cars.
AI Autonomous Cars And Backing Up
What does this have to do with AI self-driving driverless autonomous cars?
At the Cybernetic Self-Driving Car Institute, we point out that by-and-large self-driving cars are going to be equipped with sensors that allow for looking behind the car, and so it is an already built-in capability that just needs to be leveraged by the AI of the self-driving car. That’s an “edge” problem that we are working on.
An edge problem is considered one that is not at the core of something.
The core of an AI self-driving car is having the AI be able to drive the car forwards, and be able to drive down streets, drive on freeways, make safe left turns, and otherwise do all the things a human driver can do. The true self-driving car is considered a Level 5, meaning that it is a self-driving car that is driven entirely by the AI without any human intervention, and that the AI can drive as a human could.
See my article on the levels of self-driving cars: https://aitrends.com/selfdrivingcars/richter-scale-levels-self-driving-cars/
In essence, right now, the auto makers and tech firms are mainly concerned with making an AI self-driving car that can drive forwards. Going in reverse is considered a secondary problem, or what some refer to as an edge problem, since its not at the core of the driving task (as they view it). Yes, it is an important part of driving, but it’s not as crucial as driving forwards, they contend. In fact, some of the AI developers consider going in reverse to be fully solvable by just taking what you’ve developed for going forwards and reapplying it when the car is in reverse.
We don’t believe that going in reverse is merely the same as going forwards, see my article on this topic: https://aitrends.com/selfdrivingcars/looking-behind-self-driving-car-neglected-blind-spot/
This also brings up the important point that if you already are wanting AI self-driving cars so as to reduce the estimated 40,000 annual deaths in the United States due to driving incidents by human drivers, you would presumably also like to see that 15,000 per year injuries due to backing up would also get reduced too.
The AI self-driving car pretty much should already have the needed sensory devices, and so the other aspect is the AI software to leverage those sensors.
That being said, not all of the emerging AI self-driving cars necessarily have a typical backup cam per se.
They might have other cameras on the rear of the vehicle, though not necessarily of the type for a backup purpose and nor aimed at the ground behind the vehicle.
Some of the cameras are instead aimed at a further distance, so as to detect a car behind the self-driving car. One added potential plus for an AI self-driving car is that there are usually radar, sonar, and LIDAR on the car too, which can be used in combination with the cameras.
I want to point out that very important element that I just mentioned.
A conventional car that is outfitted with a backup cam is unlikely to have radar, sonar, LIDAR, and other sensors that can be used in combination with the backup cam. A conventional backup cam is all alone. It is the only means to try and detect what’s behind the car. This is slim. Having only visual clues about what is behind a car can be misleading or distorted. It is advantageous to have multiple ways to detect what’s behind the car.
We’re incorporating the other sensors into the gambit of preventing backovers so that we can increase the chances of avoiding a backover, doing so by bringing together the visual data, the radar data, the sonar data, the LIDAR data, and the rest. The AI of the self-driving car has to be doing some solid defensive driving when backing up.
For more info about AI self-driving car defensive driving, see my article: https://aitrends.com/selfdrivingcars/art-defensive-driving-key-self-driving-car-success/
Why Backing Up In Cars Is Vital
It is helpful to consider the major use cases associated with backing up a car.
We back out a car in relatively common circumstances.
There are exceptions beyond the common circumstances, but it’s best to focus initially on the common ones and then branch out from there.
First, there is backing out of a garage as a driving-in-reverse type of task.
This is extremely common for people to want to do.
The task is not as easy as it might seem. Sometimes a garage has a lot of junk in it and the sensors cannot detect anything distinctive (it’s one large blur). A garage can have very tight quarters and it makes the sensors unable to work appropriately. Garage parking and getting in and out is a specialized kind of problem (another edge problem!).
See my article about garage parking: https://aitrends.com/selfdrivingcars/ai-home-garage-automatic-parking-self-driving-cars/
Next, there’s the act of driving down a driveway while backing out.
A similar use case is driving up a driveway while backing out.
There’s backing into a parking spot as another commonly performed task, and likewise backing out of a parking spot (less frequent, but sometimes combined with going back-and-forth to inch out of a tight parking spot).
For the particulars about AI self-driving cars and parallel parking, see my article: https://aitrends.com/selfdrivingcars/parallel-parking-mindless-ai-task-self-driving-cars-time-step/
Throughout any of those backing up operations, the AI needs to be on the watch for obstructions.
The obstructions might be large or small. They might be still or in motion. They might be readily detected by multiple sensors, or only detected by one of the sensors. They might be moving away from the self-driving car or toward the self-driving car. It could be an obstruction that is recognizable, such as perhaps detecting that the obstruction is a person, or it might be an obstruction that is unrecognizable, which is nonetheless an obstruction but one of unknown capabilities or purposes.
There are also some important exceptions.
For example, suppose there is a person purposely standing at the back of my AI self-driving car that is warning other people to stay clear.
This helpful person, they themselves now become a detected obstruction by the AI. How will the AI know that the obstruction is actually part of the backing up operation?
Instead, the AI is going to assume that the person standing there is to be avoided and will likely bring the car to a halt.
Speaking of which, every morning there is a newspaper tossed onto my driveway.
Exceptions To Backing Up That Allow Driving Over Something
Each morning, I dutifully back down the driveway and go over the newspaper.
When I get home at night, I once again drive over the newspaper, and upon parking my car in the garage, I get out of my car and go to get the newspaper on the driveway.
Let’s for the moment assume that the self-driving car sensors and the AI are good enough to be able to detect that the newspaper is sitting there on the driveway.
The AI would presumably refuse each morning to backup and later when I get home would refuse to go forward, since in both cases I am driving over something.
Thus, this is a harder problem than it might seem, since there are going to be circumstances where the human occupants want the AI self-driving car to proceed with backing up, in spite of a potential rollover of something or the nearness of a human or other object.
The human occupant will need to have some means to communicate with the AI self-driving car, such as by using an in-car command. This human directive capability though has a downside, since suppose the human occupant intentionally wants to harm someone and so tells the AI self-driving car to proceed to backup into the person – should the AI self-driving car comply? As you can see, there are ethics issues involved in this too.
See my article about ethics and AI self-driving cars: https://aitrends.com/selfdrivingcars/ethically-ambiguous-self-driving-cars/
We know that backup cams are coming to conventional cars, slowly, gradually, and that some cars will also have alerts or emergency braking systems combined with a backup cam.
Older cars are unlikely to have this.
Only some of the newer cars will have it.
For AI self-driving cars, they are destined from the start to have sensory devices that can be leveraged for backing up safely.
We just need to make sure that right kind of sensors are being included, and that the AI is savvy enough to leverage those sensors.
I’d like to be able to say that with AI self-driving cars we’ll have eliminated the backover problem, but realistically it won’t eliminate it, but at least it should help to reduce the frequency and magnitude of backover incidents.
Let’s not back out of that goal.
Copyright 2019 Dr. Lance Eliot
This content is originally posted on AI Trends.