Height Warnings And AI Autonomous Cars

When an AI self-driving car comes upon a height restriction posing a danger, it needs an action plan to avoid a potential crash.

By Lance Eliot, the AI Trends Insider

Watch out for that low hanging bridge!

If you live in Boston, you are likely familiar with the notion of getting “storrowed” (there’s even a hashtag for it).

On Storrow Drive, there are numerous warning signs and blinking lights that forewarn you about a bridge that has only an 11-foot clearance, and yet somehow drivers ram into it anyway.

This can be somewhat explained, according to local lore, the confusion about ramming it is due to the aspect that when new students show-up for college in Boston, they often rent a vehicle that either is higher than 11 feet, or pile stuff on top of vehicles that end-up being higher than 11 feet.

They then use Storrow Drive to get to their university and sadly either ignore, disbelieve, or don’t notice the warning signs about the low bridge height.

As an old saying goes, when a movable object strikes an immovable one, the moving object is going to likely lose out.

Though the Bostonian bridge story gets some occasional attention, perhaps the big winner for offending low bridges goes to the 11 foot 8 inch bridge nicknamed The Can-Opener.  It’s a railroad bridge located in Durham, North Carolina and more formally known as the Norfolk Southern–Gregson Street Overpass.

Believe it or not, there is a crash into that maniacal bridge at least once per month.

That’s a disturbingly high frequency.

You might be thinking that someone ought to do something about The Can-Opener, such as raising the bridge up (overly expensive, some say, since it would involve moving the railroad tracks too), or possibly lower the street (some say it’s too expensive since there are major sewer lines at a shallow depth).

In lieu of being able to adjust the height, they’ve put up numerous warning signs.

Nonetheless, trucks and especially rented trucks seem to have a magnetic attraction to trying to smash into The Can-Opener.

There doesn’t seem to be a federal mandated height maximum requirement for commercial vehicles, and the states are able to set their own height maximum restrictions, which some suggest leads to these kinds of troubles.

Typically, the maximum height allowed for a commercial vehicle is around 13 ½ feet to 14 feet or so.

Most passenger cars are around 5 to 6 feet in height.

This leaves usually plenty of room to spare for getting under most bridges and overpasses.

There are some SUV’s though that push over the 6 foot size and include the rather tallish Hummer H2 which is 79 inches in height.

Fortunately, most of these top-height passenger vehicles will still by-and-large be low enough to make it under any reasonable positioned bridge or overpass.

Stories About Car Heights

A good friend of mine used to work for Sears when he was in college and his job involved helping people tie things down to the tops of their cars.

He tells rather shocking stories of people that bought large pieces of furniture and insisted that it had to be tied down to the top of their cars so they could haul it home.

Though he never had anyone come back and say that the height got them in trouble, he tells me that there were circumstances that likely would have had potential troubles if they had encountered The Can-Opener.

I remember one time I was traveling in someone’s SUV and they drove into an underground parking structure.

The designers of the parking structure must have not been very savvy since there were all sorts of pipes and plumbing hanging from the already low ceiling. The person driving the SUV had a ski rack on top of the SUV, and he was quite sure that it would clear the distance.

As he squeezed into a parking spot, we heard a loud and foreboding scraping sound.

Sure enough, we got out of the SUV and could see that he had wedged the ski rack abutting one of the low hanging pipes.

I suppose that if you are going to indeed hit an immovable object like the underside of a bridge, you’d at least be somewhat better off if the thing that hits is something added to the top of your vehicle.

Smashing up that dining room chair that’s tied to the roof of your car is likely better than smashing the actual roof of your vehicle.

If you watch some of the YouTube videos of trucks ramming into the lower parts of a bridge or overpass, the instances that involve the whole truck structure hitting and nearly exploding from the impact are the most excruciating to watch and lead to the most damage.

Presumably, for a typical passenger car, and any such top oriented close-call shavings will be as a result of something piled on top of the car, and not hopefully take off the entire roof of the car.

Drivers Ignore Warning Signs

For those of you that always carefully look for the roadway warning signs about heights, I applaud you, but I’d bet that most people don’t pay attention to those signs.

If you are driving a typical passenger car, you likely never look at the height warning signs and consider them as nothing more than a billboard that can be ignored.

When you rent a truck or put stuff onto the top of your car, presumably you should have the presence of mind to suddenly become aware of height. Not everyone though thinks that way. As a result, they fall into the rut of always ignoring the warning signs about heights and get themselves into some tight pickles.

You could also nearly excuse some of the instances by the aspect that there are warning signs about heights that are at times themselves hard to spot.

Perhaps at one point earlier on, the warning sign was highly visible, but after a while there are trees that grow near them or other roadway obstacles that can obscure those height warnings.

I’ve seen graffiti on those signs. I’ve seen other roadway signs placed near to the height warning sign and it becomes a visually cluttered indication of the many things that you are supposed to be forewarned about.

In essence, it can sometimes be tricky to be able to readily see and read a height warning sign, even when you are purposely and intently trying to do so.

Of course, situations like the Boston and the Durham examples are exceptions since they’ve gone out of their way to make sure there are plenty of such signs.

Those signs even include blinking lights. Probably the next step would be a bullhorn that blares out something like “low bridge ahead, watch out!”  I’m sure that those young students heading to college as a freshman would welcome such a warning (versus imagine the mess they must deal with before even starting class in terms of trying to deal with having rammed into a bridge with a rental truck!).

Judging Heights

If you are lucky enough to spot a height warning sign and can make sense of it, presumably you would use the added awareness to judge whether your car can fit under the height stated.

I’d bet there are some instances of human drivers that aren’t exactly sure whether they’ll be able to get their vehicle to fit under the height and rather than being cautious they take a chance anyway. Some of those chances likely turn out to be a bad bet and they end-up hitting the obstruction.

Supposing though that you do realize that you are cutting it close or that you won’t fit, and so you opt to avoid going under the bridge or overpass.

This can itself present another problem, since you need to figure out an alternative path to get to wherever you are going.

Plus, you need to figure out soon enough before you reach the bridge or overpass such that you can legally and without being unsafe be able to make a driving maneuver to avoid the obstruction. In some of the online videos it seems apparent that the driver realized at the last moment what was going to happen and was unable to avoid hitting the bridge or overpass because they were already going too fast to stop in time or be able to undertake a maneuver to avoid the hit.

AI Autonomous Cars And Heights

What does this have to do with AI self-driving driverless autonomous cars?

At the Cybernetic AI Self-Driving Car Institute, we are developing AI systems for self-driving cars. One of the so-called “edge” problems involves having the AI be able to deal with height restrictions and circumstances such as avoiding striking a low hanging bridge or overpass.

I mentioned that this is an edge problem.

Allow me to explain.

An edge problem is considered a type of problem that is not considered at the core of an overall problem and instead is at the periphery. It is something that is identified as a problem but given less priority and attention than the core ones. In the case of an AI self-driving car, focusing on the general driving task is at the core, while providing attention to something like the height aspects is considered an edge because it is less likely to occur and somewhat of a rarity for a car.

That being said, it is something that those developing AI for self-driving trucks must consider at the core due to the higher likelihood of a truck encountering a height related issue.

Thus, whether developed for the purposes of a car or truck, it is a feature that has value and needs to ultimately be considered “solved” in that the AI must have a means to contend with height related considerations.

For more about edge problems in AI self-driving cars, see my article: https://aitrends.com/selfdrivingcars/edge-problems-core-true-self-driving-cars-achieving-last-mile/

For the levels of AI self-driving cars, see: https://aitrends.com/selfdrivingcars/richter-scale-levels-self-driving-cars/

There is another circumstance involving AI self-driving cars wherein height comes to play.

If an AI self-driving car is towing something, such as a U-Haul rented storage carrier, the towed item might involve height related considerations.

Though the self-driving car itself might not have any particular height related difficulties, the items being towed might be high enough to raise up to a low hanging bridge or overpass. Since the towed item is connected to the self-driving car, it’s up to the AI to presumably be aware of what it is towing and therefore take into account changes needed in the driving task due to the towed item.

It’s not an excuse to pretend that the AI was only responsible for the self-driving car per se.

For a true level 5 self-driving car, which is considered the topmost ranking of an AI self-driving car, the assumption is that the AI can drive the car as a human would. In that sense, it would normally be an expectation that a human driving a car that’s towing something is as responsible for the actions of the car as they are of the items towed. If the human fails to properly tie down the towed items or fails to connect them securely to the car, it’s all on the human for having not done so. Likewise, if the human hits a bridge with the towed item, it’s the driver’s fault, whether a human driver or the AI.

For aspects about AI self-driving cars that are towing items, see my article: https://aitrends.com/selfdrivingcars/towing-and-ai-self-driving-cars/

In terms of accidents involving AI self-driving cars, see my article: https://aitrends.com/ai-insider/accidents-contagion-and-ai-self-driving-cars/

As an overall framework of the AI driving tasks, here’s the major steps that the AI undergoes while at the wheel of a self-driving car (so to speak):

  • Sensor data collection and interpretation
  • Sensor fusion
  • Virtual world model updating
  • AI action planning
  • Car controls command issuance

For more about my framework, see: https://aitrends.com/selfdrivingcars/framework-ai-self-driving-driverless-cars-big-picture/

Determining Heights

Let’s start with the aspect of the AI needing to know the height of the self-driving car, which would encompass the self-driving car plus anything piled on top of it, plus anything being towed by the self-driving car.

There’s no easy automatic way right now for the AI to become aware of the height aspects.

There aren’t usually sensors on an AI self-driving car that will allow it to determine its own height and nor the height of something being towed. In the future, there might be such sensors added onto AI self-driving cars. For the moment, this being an edge problem doesn’t tend to warrant the cost and effort of including such sensors onto an AI self-driving car.

If there isn’t any such sensor already built-in, how else can the AI self-driving car ascertain the height of itself and whatever it might be towing?

One means would be to ask about the height. The AI could ask a human. If there is a human that will either be occupying the AI self-driving car during the journey, or a human that is setting the AI along on a journey (but not going to riding in the self-driving car), the AI could ask about the height aspects.

You might assume that the human(s) involved would be wise enough to forewarn the AI about any height related considerations.

I’d dare say that the human(s) might assume that the AI is already somehow able to figure out the height related aspects, and so the human(s) involved might be later shocked when they find out that their clothes and furniture spilled onto the highway because the towed storage shed bashed into the ceiling of a bridge. Probably would be best to have the AI inquire prior to a journey.

Even if the AI asks about the height, it doesn’t imply necessarily that the human(s) will accurately reply.

In that manner, the AI is either going to be stuck with assuming that the human indication is correct or might need to assume that the human is maybe off-base a bit and become extra cautious. If a human says that the height is around 9 feet, it might be prudent for the AI to assume that it is really more like 10 feet and therefore avoid any height circumstances involving 10 feet rather than only those at 9 feet.

Indeed, you might opt to default that if the human indicates there is any added height at all, the rule-of-thumb for the AI might be to avoid any kind of height restricted situations, though this is a rather extreme precaution and would likely cause the driving path of the self-driving car to become quite convoluted.

For aspects of human interaction with AI self-driving cars, see my article: https://aitrends.com/features/socio-behavioral-computing-for-ai-self-driving-cars/

Using V2V And V2I To Discover Heights

Another approach to potentially figuring out the height of an AI self-driving car would be for the AI to try and communicate with other AI self-driving cars around it.

Another AI self-driving car might be able to discern the height related aspects, doing so by using its sensors such as its cameras, radar, sonic, and LIDAR. This could then be relayed to the self-driving car via V2V (vehicle-to-vehicle) communications. Thus, one AI self-driving car asks another nearby one to take a look, which after inspecting the height then is reported back to the asking AI self-driving car. Kind of a buddy system.

This brings up another facet of the height related problem.

At some point, once there are lots of AI self-driving cars on the roadways, it could be that via the use of V2V that the AI systems are trying to help each other out. While on a freeway, if there’s a car stalled in the middle of the freeway, those AI self-driving cars nearest to the stalled car can convey to other self-driving cars that are coming up upon the scene to be wary of the stalled car. In a similar manner, AI self-driving cars that are coming upon a low hanging bridge or overpass can potentially forewarn other approaching AI self-driving cars about the situation.

In the case of the Storrowed in Boston, there would be AI self-driving cars that might not yet know about the low overhang and meanwhile others that do (having driven that way before).

The ones that knew about it, either due to having driven there before or upon detecting it or having been previously informed about it, could warn other AI self-driving cars that are nearby and that are headed toward the potential obstruction. The AI of the receiving self-driving cars would then need to ascertain whether the awareness about the low hanging circumstance applied to them or not.

We are also heading toward V2I, which is vehicle-to-infrastructure communication.

There will be Internet of Things (IoT) types of devices along and throughout the roadway infrastructure and they will serve to warn drivers about various roadway conditions. These warnings might include that there’s road construction up ahead, or maybe that an intersection is blocked and to avoid it, and so on. It is anticipated that road signs are likely to be augmented with IoT, thus rather than having to only be able to visually spot a road sign, the road sign will transmit an electronic signal and thus cars can be aware of what the road sign depicts (including speed limits, cautions, and of course height warnings).

For my article about how AI self-driving cars can detect road signs, see: https://aitrends.com/selfdrivingcars/making-ai-sense-of-road-signs/

For more about IoT and AI self-driving cars, see my article: https://aitrends.com/selfdrivingcars/internet-of-things-iot-and-ai-self-driving-cars/

Another consideration about AI self-driving cars is that they are likely to be on our roadways quite a bit.

It is anticipated that many of the AI self-driving cars will be operating nearly non-stop, running 24×7.

This is due to the belief that doing so makes economic sense and why not leverage the ability to have an electronic driver that never sleeps. From a height perspective, it implies that with these AI self-driving cars continually roving around there’s perhaps a heightened chance (pun!) of them encountering height related driving circumstances.

Thus, again another reason to have the AI prepared for such a situation.

For my article about non-stop running of AI self-driving cars, see: https://aitrends.com/selfdrivingcars/non-stop-ai-self-driving-cars-truths-and-consequences/

GPS And Maps Not Necessarily Cure-All

You might be saying to yourself that the GPS and electronic maps ought to be letting the AI know about any height restrictions on the roadways.

Currently, GPS mappings are somewhat inconsistent in having marked or indicated the height related aspects of a driving situation. It definitely is another source of input about heights and the AI should be considering it.

Nonetheless, it is not always guaranteed to be available and the AI needs to be finding alternative ways to further figure out the height of obstructions.

The other day, I was driving through a rather tony neighborhood that had large trees at the sides of the streets and the trees had grown over the street to make a spectacular kind of shroud. It was breathtaking. But, there had been recent rains and high-winds, which caused some of the heavy branches to slightly break and bend downward.

Driving along the street required some pretty careful weaving from one side of the street to the other, hoping to avoid hitting the dangling branches.

A true AI self-driving car should have been able to be equally deft in maneuvering through those streets.

There would not have been any GPS mapping warnings. There weren’t any street signs warning about the height issues. It was instead entirely in-the-moment of trying to figure out the height issues.

Notice also that I drove “illegally” by going onto the other side of the street, momentarily, cautiously, only when safe to do so. I mention this point about driving “illegally” because there are some AI pundits that have claimed that AI self-driving cars should never drive illegally, which I’ve debunked as an unreasonable expectation.

For my article about the illegal driving of AI self-driving cars, see: https://aitrends.com/selfdrivingcars/illegal-driving-self-driving-cars/

For aspects of how AI needs to be a good defensive driver, see my article: https://aitrends.com/selfdrivingcars/art-defensive-driving-key-self-driving-car-success/


In recap, the AI needs to discover the height of the self-driving car and which would include any towed items.

It needs to be aware of height related restrictions, doing so via using its own sensors to try and identify height related concerns, along with trying to spot and read height warning signs, and possibly use GPS mappings, V2V, and V2I too.

The AI should route around any height concerns, if feasible. If the AI is taken by surprise and comes upon a height problem, it needs to devise rapidly an action plan to safely maneuver to avoid the crash.

If somehow a crash nonetheless occurs, the AI would need to become aware that a hit has occurred and take further action as appropriate.

As humans, we take for granted our ability to deal with height related driving issues. It is just the daily aspects of driving a car.

Most of the time, we don’t encounter height related problems. But, we are overall generally ready for it. Some humans regrettably aren’t paying attention or at times ignore or disbelieve when they get themselves into a height driving predicament. For AI systems that control self-driving cars, we’re all going to want and expect that the AI is on the alert and able to contend with height aspects.

As you can perhaps discern, it’s a bit of a “tall order” for the AI to do so.

Copyright 2019 Dr. Lance Eliot

This content is originally posted on AI Trends.

[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/]