Off-Roading As A Challenging Use Case For AI Autonomous Cars

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Rock crawling in an off-road vehicle.

By Lance Eliot, the AI Trends Insider 

Green laning. Mudding. Rock crawling. Dune bashing. 

These are all various kinds of off-road driving experiences. 

For those of you that happen to own or use an Off-Road Vehicle (ORV), I’m sure that you are smiling right now as I mention such aspects such as green laning, which involves driving an ORV on forest trails in a greenery environment, or perhaps you are more akin to doing dune bashing, which involves rolling up and down sand dunes at the beach.

Rock crawling can be particularly scary as you inch your ORV over the top of rocks and sometimes try to scale large-scale rock formations, doing so at steep and rather precarious angles. In contrast, mudding usually involves splashing and slipping and sliding your way through gooey mud. The mud wants to cling to every pore of the ORV and can even blind the driver by coating the windshield with a nearly impenetrably thick layer of mishmash dank mud.

Some people seem to select a particular kind of off-road environment and then stick with it, rather than aiming at all of the myriad of off-road possibilities. There are the desert rats that always go to the open desert to do their off-roading. The mud slugs like those forest-like areas that have lots of rain and provide ample oodles of mud. Dune dogs are always found at the off-road opportunities on sandy beaches and you can just barely hear them over the roar of their engines as they yelp and holler upon bouncing over the next curvy dune.

 Is off-roading a sport? 

There’s a great deal of debate about whether driving your vehicle in these off-road situations is a sport or just some kind of hobby or pastime. For the true off-roaders, they would likely argue vehemently that it is a sport. 

They often put their heart and soul into preparing their vehicles and love to compete against other off-roaders. You’ll see them congregate at a muddy plot of land or at imposing rock formations and then see who can make it across or over these impediments, often clocking each other to see who can do so the fastest. 

There are points to be had for style. 

Plus, of course, not breaking your neck or your vehicle is considered notable too.

Not everyone is keen on having off-roaders do their thing. 

Various environmental entities have repeatedly sought to have off-roading corralled, doing so as a means to help protect public lands from potential harm or destruction. There are legal and illegal ways to do off-roading. At times, off-roading can harm animal habitats, it can destroy or hamper existing trails, it can degrade the land itself, it can produce pollution, and so on. Some say too that the noise produced is untoward and adversely impacts animals and even humans that otherwise might desire to enjoy the quiet outdoors. Numerous court cases have been brought by local agencies, state governments, the federal government, and have wound their way at times to the United States Supreme Court.

Type Of Vehicle For Off-Roading

Do you have to use a specially equipped vehicle to do off-roading? 

No, you don’t, and it all depends on what kind of off-road circumstance you are facing.

If you want to get or craft an ORV, there are lots of auto makers that provide consumer-oriented trucks, jeeps, and SUV’s that are built for doing off-roading.

 You might need a reinforced roll cage to protect the occupants of the vehicle. You might need large super-thick tires with special traction. You might need high-clearance and underbody protection to keep from trashing the innards of your engine and transmission. Typically, you’ve got 4WD (four-wheel drive) and RWD (rear wheel drive), along with settings for different gears to be able to deal with the need for pushing power to your wheels. You’ve probably got tough shock absorbers with taut springs. Etc.

Some ORV’s are classified as RTV’s (Road Taxed Vehicles). 

An RTV is considered street-legal and able to drive on our everyday public roads, along with then shifting into an off-roading mode once the situation presents itself. Or, it could be that you opt to get an ORV that is not legally able to traverse on conventional roads, and if so you are likely to have a CCV (Cross Country Vehicle). The beauty for some off-roaders of having a CCV is that you can add or subtract automotive components and do so without having to be worried that you’ll get a ticket for driving it on normal streets. These kinds of off-roaders will trick out their ORV with an anything-goes mindset.

What about using everyday conventional cars to do off-roading – can you do so? 

Yes, and I’d like to share some examples with you.

Tale Of Nearly Being Stranded In A Desert

When I was earlier in my career doing consulting as a programmer-for-hire, I had gotten a call from a tech firm residing in Palo Alto, California that had gotten a contract to implement digital technology for a hotel casino in Las Vegas. Through the programmer avid grapevine, the tech firm had heard that I was a hotshot in the processors that they were going to use for automating the slot machines of the casino. After I briefly chatted with the director overseeing the project, he told me I was hired for the gig and that I should get ready to live in Vegas for the 5-weeks projects (they would be putting me up at the hotel casino for the duration of the effort).

Living in Southern California, I had been to Las Vegas numerous times before. Getting there is relatively easy. Besides the possibility of taking a 1-hour flight, most tend to just drive to Vegas since it is a somewhat quick drive of about 5 hours. On the drive there, you are dreaming about the riches you’ll gain at the gambling tables and via the slot machines. On the drive back home, you are usually sulking at the money you lost, but at least you’ll hopefully have fond memories of having had a good time.

 The director in-charge of the project said that he’d drive down from Palo Alto to Los Angeles and pick me up on the way out to Las Vegas, and he’d be picking up another programmer that was in San Jose, doing so prior to reaching me in Southern California. The three of us would be able to get acquainted on the drive to Vegas and discuss the details of the effort. Seemed like an interesting project and one that would give me a chance to “live in Vegas” and see what that would be like (versus always having been a tourist). He told me that I would need to sign a nondisclosure agreement and that whatever happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.

 Upon reaching me in Los Angeles, the three of us then got underway toward Vegas. Once you get outside of the major cities of the Los Angeles area, the rest of the journey to Vegas is through barren desert. There is a nice paved highway that stretches from the outskirts of Los Angeles and makes its way to Las Vegas, snaking its way across the vast landscape of the open desert. You can imagine that the Vegas operators want to make sure that those gamblers from Southern California that want to lose their money at the casinos have a handy means to get to Vegas. The highway seems to always be kept in rather pristine condition.

 We were about an hour or so outside of Vegas when all of a sudden, the director asked if we wanted to see an old abandoned gold mine. Apparently, he had heard about a gold mine in the desert that used to have been very productive and ultimately was boarded up. He thought it would be neat to go see the closed-up mine. I wasn’t keen on the idea. The other programmer was excited about the notion and urged that we take a look.

 To my consternation, we slowed down upon coming to a dirt road that was an offshoot of the main highway while on our way to Vegas. We got off the main highway, a paved road that was clean and smooth, and instead began to drive on a rutted dirt road full of potholes and sagebrush. The director had rented a normal passenger car and it was not oriented at all toward doing any kind of off-road efforts. Nonetheless, there we were, bumping and wheeling along on a dirt road.

 I looked out the back window of the car and gradually could see that the main highway was getting smaller and smaller as it disappeared from sight. The dirt road eventually weaved around various desert hills and we were then completely unseen from the main highway. Suppose the car broke down? I worried that no one taking the main highway to Vegas would be able to see us. If we wanted to walk to the main highway because of the car breaking down, it would likely take hours of marching through a hot desert. Once it got to nighttime, I knew too that the temperature would plunge to freezing conditions and the darkness in the desert can be dizzying (there weren’t any street lights to be had).

 Anyway, since the other two occupants were gleeful about seeing the gold mine, I opted to remain silent and just hoped for the best (side note: next time, if there ever is a next time, I’d insist to not take such a journey without proper preparation; nobody knew that we were taking this tangent and at least if we had told someone else it might have make things a bit more reasonable). After about 20 minutes of rumbling along the dirt road, we could see the boarded-up gold mine ahead.

 Unfortunately, there wasn’t even a road per se anymore and the car was now being driven on nothing more than uncultivated wild desert dirt. We slowed down to a crawling speed since the car was having a hard time dealing with the ruts and holes. It was like being inside a washing machine as the car whipped from side-to-side and we bumped along. This added about another 15 minutes of driving time, making our way only a seemingly short distance but was akin to being in the Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride at Disneyland. If my teeth weren’t going to be jarred out of my head, I certainly expected to have the car itself fall apart and leave strewn automobile parts like the bones and carcasses of deceased desert animals.

 We pulled up to the opening of the gold mine. There was a large sign that proclaimed “Danger: Stay Out” and for which seemed to suggest to me that we ought to not go into the abandoned mine. Somehow, my two compatriots interpreted the sign as though it was beckoning us to come on in. They told me that of course there had to be a sign telling people not to go into the mine shaft, since whomever owned it had to try and avoid any liability. But they assured me, it was safe to go into this darkened, dirty, damp, forbidding mine and that everyone really “knew” that the sign was to be ignored.

 I offered to stay outside of the mine. If they wanted to go into the mine, it was up to them. I would wait outside and be able to aid them or perhaps rescue them if needed. Admittedly, I wasn’t sure what kind of a rescue I could do, other than going to get help. Keep in mind though that getting help was not going to be quick. It would require driving on the non-road to the dirt road, and then driving on the dirt road to the main highway, and then taking the main highway likely all the rest of the way to the outskirts of Vegas before I’d find even a gas station that could be sought for assistance.

 My two colleagues were sure that I would be saddened to not go into the mine, and after realizing I was not going to set one foot into the open shaft (you could squeeze your way around the wood slats that had been placed across the opening to dissuade entry), they cheerfully started into the mine. I watched them until they gradually went out of view. I yelled to them a few times to check-in with them and eventually no longer got a reply. They had descended too far into the mine to hear me.

 I stood next to the opening and looked at my watch. How long should I wait until they return? It was then that I realized something that I should not even admit to you. First, keep in mind that I was just in my early 20’s and perhaps a bit naïve about the world. Okay, ready? I realized that the keys to the car were with the two colleagues that were now inside the mine and completely beyond reach. Yikes! Somehow in all of the excitement and debate about the mine, they had hung onto the keys and I had failed to get the keys from them. If help was needed, I would have to walk to the main highway and then try to plead with a passing car to stop and assist. The situation was a mess.

 Whereas they had insisted they would just poke around in the mine and come right back out, it was nearly two hours later before they emerged from the mine. I suppose it was best that I didn’t have the keys since I probably would have driven away to get help by the end of the first hour of their disappearance. Anyway, they relished bragging to me about the gold mine and after we drove back to the main highway and ultimately got to Vegas, they told everyone else on the team that it was the trip of a lifetime to have explored the abandoned mine. I still claim that they were lucky to have not gotten hurt, or gotten trapped, or who knows what could have happened.

 The story provides an example of going off-road. Furthermore, we went off-road in a conventional car. I’d wager that people often use their conventional car for various off-road pursuits. Going off-road does not always need to be some massive off-road circumstance involving masses of mud and attempts at water fording. Instead, we face off-road situations all the time.

 Formally Defining Off-Roading

What does constitute going off-road?

For some people, if their GPS cannot map an area, they would say they are off-road. Have you ever driven to your local mall and gotten into the middle of the mall parking lot, and then asked your GPS to give you directions to get out of the mall? At times, the GPS won’t have any map to refer to and will simply tell you to first find your own way to an identifiable road. The mall itself is considered “off-road” in that the GPS has no idea about the nature of the smaller streets and weaving paths within the confines of the mall.

There are various trail ratings that are used to gauge how difficult an off-road situation might be. This helps for those that are purposely going off-road to designated areas and they then can anticipate how easy or hard the off-road location might be. This also is handy for doing competitions because you can then say that you succeeded in a really easy off-road or a really hard off-road situation.

 I’ll offer this scale for purposes of trying to ascertain an off-road difficulty factor:

0: Not off-road (an on-road situation and without any off-road aspects)

1: Borderline off-road (mainly on-road with some easily navigated off-road)

2: Mild off-road (off-road but likely ok for a conventional car)

3: Arduous off-road (off-road and unlikely for a conventional car)

4: Grueling off-road (requires an ORV and somewhat taxing)

5: Severe off-road (ORV stretched to its limits)

6: Unnavigable off-road (not navigable by a ground-based vehicle)

 My side trip into the desert was a rating of 2. Trying to drive in a mall parking lot that has no GPS map is a 1.

 You need to be thoughtful about the use of the scoring. 

For example, you might want to consider the worst-case portion of the off-road situation and rate the matter that way. If you are on a passable trail and reach a water fording that only a boat could handle, and suppose you need to turn back, the water hazard makes the overall path into a 5 or 6, even if the rest of the path was perhaps a 2 or 3.

There is another perspective too on the off-road situation. There are predicaments whereby the off-roading has come to you, rather than you going to it. Suppose you are at home and live in an area that is prone to hurricanes. You live in a quiet neighborhood with nice paved streets. Once a hurricane hits, it might rip up the roads, it might flood the roads, it might toss debris onto the roads. Thus, you went from normally driving entirely on-road to now having to drive “off-road” while still in your neighborhood.

 For more about hurricanes and driving, see my article: https://aitrends.com/selfdrivingcars/hurricanes-and-ai-self-driving-cars-plus-other-natural-disasters/

 Everyday Off-Roading

Do not think of off-roading as only the use case involving going to some remote location and being prepared for becoming an off-roader. 

Off-roading can occur in our daily lives.

When I was in my teens, and just barely able to legally drive, I took a date to a movie theatre. It was our first date and I was hoping to impress. The movie theatre parking lot was full and as such the theatre had provided a dirt lot next door for overflow parking. I parked in the dirt lot and we proceeded into the theatre. Had a great time and watched a memorable movie.

 Upon exiting the movie theatre, we discovered it had rained heavily while we were watching the movie. The dirt parking lot was now a sea of mud. I told my date to wait at the front of the movie theatre and I would go get the car out of the mud. When I tried to move the car, the tires just slid and could not get any traction. A couple of guys that were coming out to their cars offered to help push my car (I am still forever grateful!), and so I put the car in neutral and we all pushed to get the car onto dry land. As I stood along them at outside the car to help push it, I became utterly caked with mud. I then drove up to the front of the theatre and picked-up my date, feeling a bit foolish to have gotten stuck in the mud and now to be completely coated with mud. I guess that’s Murphy’s Law about first dates.

 The point being that I was not in a remote locale. I had not driven up to the mountains or out into the desert. I was in the city and yet still had an off-road experience. You might want to argue about the nature of the off-road experience and say that it was pretty short-lived, Okay, sure, but I would argue that it nonetheless was an off-road activity.

 AI Autonomous Cars And Off-Roading Aspects

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

At the Cybernetic AI Self-Driving Car Institute, we are developing AI software for self-driving cars. One crucial aspect relates to off-roading. I’ll explain more about the off-roading element in a moment.

 I’d like to first clarify and introduce the notion that there are varying levels of AI self-driving cars. The topmost level is considered Level 5. A Level 5 self-driving car is one that is being driven by the AI and there is no human driver involved. For the design of Level 5 self-driving cars, the auto makers are even removing the gas pedal, brake pedal, and steering wheel, since those are contraptions used by human drivers. The Level 5 self-driving car is not being driven by a human and nor is there an expectation that a human driver will be present in the self-driving car. It’s all on the shoulders of the AI to drive the car.

 For self-driving cars less than a Level 5, there must be a human driver present in the car. The human driver is currently considered the responsible party for the acts of the car. The AI and the human driver are co-sharing the driving task. In spite of this co-sharing, the human is supposed to remain fully immersed into the driving task and be ready at all times to perform the driving task. I’ve repeatedly warned about the dangers of this co-sharing arrangement and predicted it will produce many untoward results.

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

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

 For why AI Level 5 self-driving cars are like a moonshot, see my article: https://aitrends.com/selfdrivingcars/self-driving-car-mother-ai-projects-moonshot/

 For the dangers of co-sharing the driving task, see my article: https://aitrends.com/selfdrivingcars/human-back-up-drivers-for-ai-self-driving-cars/

 Let’s focus herein on the true Level 5 self-driving car. Much of the comments apply to the less than Level 5 self-driving cars too, but the fully autonomous AI self-driving car will receive the most attention in this discussion.

 Here’s the usual steps involved in the AI driving task:

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

 Another key aspect of AI self-driving cars is that they will be driving on our roadways in the midst of human driven cars too. There are some pundits of AI self-driving cars that continually refer to a Utopian world in which there are only AI self-driving cars on the public roads. Currently there are about 250+ million conventional cars in the United States alone, and those cars are not going to magically disappear or become true Level 5 AI self-driving cars overnight.

 Indeed, the use of human driven cars will last for many years, likely many decades, and the advent of AI self-driving cars will occur while there are still human driven cars on the roads. This is a crucial point since this means that the AI of self-driving cars needs to be able to contend with not just other AI self-driving cars, but also contend with human driven cars. It is easy to envision a simplistic and rather unrealistic world in which all AI self-driving cars are politely interacting with each other and being civil about roadway interactions. That’s not what is going to be happening for the foreseeable future. AI self-driving cars and human driven cars will need to be able to cope with each other.

 For my article about the grand convergence that has led us to this moment in time, see: https://aitrends.com/selfdrivingcars/grand-convergence-explains-rise-self-driving-cars/

 See my article about the ethical dilemmas facing AI self-driving cars: https://aitrends.com/selfdrivingcars/ethically-ambiguous-self-driving-cars/

 For potential regulations about AI self-driving cars, see my article: https://aitrends.com/selfdrivingcars/assessing-federal-regulations-self-driving-cars-house-bill-passed/

 For my predictions about AI self-driving cars for the 2020s, 2030s, and 2040s, see my article: https://aitrends.com/selfdrivingcars/gen-z-and-the-fate-of-ai-self-driving-cars/

 Surprising To Many Is That Level 5 Excludes Off-Roading

Returning to the topic of off-roading, here’s something that might knock your socks off. 

According to the official Levels of self-driving cars, a Level 5 self-driving car does not necessarily need to be able to handle off-road driving.

As per the SAE standard, a Level 5 self-driving car is supposed to be able to drive the car for all driver-manageable on-road conditions. 

Notice that there are then two important caveats. 

One caveat is that the driving circumstances must be driver-manageable. 

The other caveat is that the driving situations apply only to on-road and not off-road occasions.

We can argue about what is a driver-manageable circumstance, and likewise we can argue about what is off-road versus on-road. 

Let’s consider separately at first the driver-manageable aspects. We’ll then consider the off-road versus on-road aspects. And, I’ll then intertwine the two elements since they can indeed intersect with each other.

A driver-manageable situation involves a driving task that presumably a human could drive. If a human could not drive the car, it might be “unfair” to expect that the AI can somehow magically drive the car. For example, my car is pinned in, sandwiched among other cars in a parking lot. As a human, no matter what I do, I cannot drive my car out of the situation. I’m stuck. We could not reasonably expect that the AI can drive the car out of the situation either. It is not a driver-manageable circumstance, whether by human or by automation.

 The grey area of being driver-manageable though involves the nature of the driver. I was stuck in the snow one time and thought I could not drive my way out. A highway patrol officer stopped to take a look at my stuck car. He offered to help and then actually got into my car and drove it out of the snow. If you had asked me beforehand if it was a driver-manageable circumstance, I might have said that it was not. I might have insisted that there was no means to drive the car out of the snow. You can see that this example illustrates the potential for a grey area of what is driver-manageable or not. It can at times be in the eye of the beholder and in the skillset of the driver.

 For more about the boundaries of AI and dealing with driver-manageable situations, se my article: https://aitrends.com/selfdrivingcars/ai-boundaries-and-self-driving-cars-the-driving-controls-debate/

 Next, let’s consider the notion of Level 5 not being required to deal with off-road situations. 

What is an on-road versus an off-road circumstance?

I don’t think you can say that off-road is only when you are driving an ORV. As my earlier examples illustrate, you can get yourself into an off-road driving situation and not be in a vehicle that was intended for off-roading per se. A conventional car can just as readily be involved in off-roading. Therefore, you cannot dictate that the type of car ergo means you are off-roading (plus, of course, you might be using an ORV while driving on normal highways, therefore you are using it for both on-road driving and off-road driving).

 You cannot claim that off-roading is solely when you are in a remote location. My story about the movie theatre parking lot shows that you can be immersed in a city environment and still do off-road driving. Likewise, as mentioned, off-roading can come to you, such as my example of the hurricane that strikes your neighborhood.

 For some pundits, off-roading involves going outside the bounds of your GPS. To them, when being even in a mall parking lot, and if your GPS cannot provide a map of your location, it is off-roading because the GPS can no longer provide navigation instructions about the car for you.

 This is partially why there is a huge effort afoot to try and digitally map every square inch of populated areas. For an AI self-driving car, if it has no map to showcase where to go, in some respects that AI becomes unable to navigate the car. Sure, the AI can still drive the car, but where is it intended to drive to? There is a kind of push toward the Holy Grail of having detailed maps of everywhere that you might want to go, which then will make life easier for the AI of the self-driving car.

 Having AI system such as robots navigate an unmapped area and gradually figure out as much as it can about the area is a well-known and much studied problem in computer science, and it is more commonly referred to as SLAM, which is an acronym for Simultaneous Localization And Mapping. We will gradually see this same kind of technique used by AI self-driving cars that find themselves in unmapped areas.

 For more about SLAM, see my article: https://aitrends.com/selfdrivingcars/simultaneous-localization-mapping-slam-ai-self-driving-cars/

 For cartographic mapping issues and self-driving cars, see my article: https://aitrends.com/ai-insider/cartographic-trade-offs-self-driving-cars-map-no-map/

 An IMU can help with driving the car in unmapped locations, see my article: https://aitrends.com/selfdrivingcars/proprioceptive-inertial-measurement-units-imu-self-driving-cars/

 Basis For the Carve-Out Of Off-Roading

I think you can guess why the Level 5 includes the carve-out that the topmost level only involves on-road situations. 

For on-road driving, presumably you would have a map that informs the AI about where you are driving and it would be coupled to a GPS. For off-road driving, there is less likely to be any map available of where to go. It is a harder driving situation.

Also, off-roading tends to involve tricky driving. Driving in thick mud is trickier than driving on a dry paved road. Driving in the snow is trickier than driving on a rain covered road. Driving over dunes at the beach can be quite tricky, especially if you are not wanting to roll the vehicle over. Etc.

 When I refer to driving as being tricky, this dovetails us into the other aspect of the Level 5 about being driver-manageable. Someone that drives their car each day to work on paved roads might be quite taken aback if you asked them to try and drive across rocks and boulders in the desert. There is a skill involved in handling off-road driving.

 We are faced then with situations that are off-road and challenging, and also circumstances where there is a question if the driving is driver-manageable or not. Often, an off-road situation is also one that tends to be driver-manageable challenging. Obviously, you can have on-road situations that are also driver-manageable challenging, but I’d say it is fair to suggest that more-often-than-not an off-road situation will likely be also driver-manageable challenging, more so than an on-road driving task.

 I have had AI developers that tell me they are relieved that the Level 5 does not require an AI skillset that involves doing off-roading. These AI developers are swamped with trying to get self-driving cars to merely navigate on-road and make sure that the AI doesn’t injure or kill anyone as it does so. It is nearly unimaginable to those AI developers that they might have to also deal with the vagaries of off-roading.

 For my article about egocentric design by AI developers, see: https://aitrends.com/selfdrivingcars/egocentric-design-and-ai-self-driving-cars/

 For the dangers of AI developer burnout, see my article: https://aitrends.com/selfdrivingcars/developer-burnout-and-ai-self-driving-cars/

 Groupthink can get in the way of designing AI self-driving cars, as per my article: https://aitrends.com/selfdrivingcars/groupthink-dilemmas-for-developing-ai-self-driving-cars/

 Snow driving is an example of the on-road and off-road mixture of driving, see my article: https://aitrends.com/selfdrivingcars/snow-driving-ai-self-driving-cars/

 Qualms About The Official Off-Roading Exclusion

I am doubtful though that consumers are going to be happy to discover that their vaunted AI self-driving car does not necessarily know how to cope with off-road driving situations. It might be reasonable as an auto maker to say that your AI self-driving car cannot handle driving in some obscure unexplored outback location, but if it won’t get you out of a muddy parking lot at a movie theatre, I’d bet that people will howl about such a limitation.

Similarly, suppose you have your AI self-driving car parked at home, and a hurricane causes wanton destruction and damage to the streets of your neighborhood. If the AI of the self-driving car considers such a road to now be off-road, you are going to be stuck. Furthermore, since there might not be any driving controls provided in the Level 5 self-driving car, you cannot drive yourself out of the situation, though you might want to do so.

 Another somewhat disturbing concern too about the levels of self-driving cars is that a carve-out for off-road situations even exists without some other level to include it. What are we to call an AI self-driving car that can-do off-road driving? You could say it is Level 5, but now we’ll have some Level 5 self-driving cars that can handle off-road driving and others that cannot. It would seem prudent to include another level, perhaps Level 6, which would include off-road driving.

 I’m sure that someone will right away balk at having a Level 6 that includes off-road driving because they would argue that you cannot guarantee that an AI self-driving car could cope with all the possibilities of off-road driving. I hear you on that objection. But, let’s make sure to remember that we can limit things by saying that it needs to be driver manageable. In essence, we could suggest that a Level 6 would include off-road but only when driver-manageable. I realize this provides a kind of loophole as to what off-road situations apply, but I think it reasonable to do so.

 As an aside, if you want to know about another argument on this topic of driver-manageable, I’ve so far suggested that the definition of driver-manageable encompasses only if a human could have driven the car in the matter at-hand. I also raised the point that human drivers vary in their driving skills, such as me versus the highway patrol officer that was able to get me out of a snow jam. Let’s pretend we decide that driver-manageable includes driving to the capability of the greatest possible driving that any human could drive. This then deals with the potential for having sub-par drivers, such as me and snow driving.

 There are some pundits that suggest that the AI might be able to driver better than even the best of any human driver. Therefore, if we limit the definition of driver-manageable to only what the best human can drive, we are not allowing for the possibility that an AI driving system might eclipse human driving capabilities. As such, in theory, we need to posit that the driver-manageable definition encompasses not only the best human driver, but also includes whatever an AI driving system might be able to achieve that presumably could surpass the capabilities of humans.

 Anyway, for now, the Level 5 indicates that the AI only needs to be able to deal with on-road situations. It is going to be ambiguous as to what constitutes on-road versus off-road. The auto makers and tech firms will likely be shaping these boundaries as they go along. You’ll see a Level 5 self-driving car that strictly sticks with no off-road of any kind. Another auto maker or tech firm might try to best that by having a Level 5 self-driving car that can handle the borderline and mild forms of off-road. Competition will undoubtedly gradually get us toward AI self-driving cars that can handle various kinds of off-road situations.

 There will also likely be AI systems developed for ORV’s. You might assume that if there is AI that can cope with an ORV, it would seem a simple matter to then download the AI into a non-off-road self-driving car and it could too handle going off-road. The problem there is that the ORV is bound to be designed and built for off-road purposes. It might have the high-clearance, the special tires, and other equipment that allows it to handle off-road situations that a normal non-off-road self-driving car could not.

 Can Today’s On-Road Sensors Handle Off-Roading 

This also brings up the aspects of the sensors on a self-driving car. 

Today’s sensors that are being used on self-driving cars are quite limited in their capacity to detect the kinds of objects and ground surface novelties that you would find when going truly off-roading. We are likely to see advances in sensor technology that will make sensors more capable for that kind of detection. Will we see those advanced sensors be included in everyday self-driving cars? 

Maybe yes, maybe not. 

The cost might be high so instead those sensors might get included into a pricier ORV.

For the reframing of AI self-driving car levels, see my article: https://aitrends.com/ai-insider/reframing-ai-levels-for-self-driving-cars-bifurcation-of-autonomy/

 For how self-driving cars will be marketed, see my article: https://aitrends.com/selfdrivingcars/marketing-self-driving-cars-new-paradigms/

 For internal naysayers during AI self-driving car development, see my article: https://aitrends.com/ai-insider/internal-naysayers-and-ai-self-driving-cars/

 For virtual spike strips, see my article: https://aitrends.com/ai-insider/virtual-spike-strips-and-ai-self-driving-cars/

 Ethical And Societal Implications of Autonomous Car Off-Roading

Recall that I earlier mentioned that environmentalists and others are concerned that off-roading can damage or destroy land and wildlife, and can be disturbing to those that are not off-roading and trying to otherwise enjoy remote locales.

One question to consider is whether or not the AI self-driving car might be electronically prohibited from going into certain off-road locations.

 You might have a human that wants to go into an off-road location for the spirit of doing so, but it could be an area deemed as not legally allowed for off-roading. In that case, it would be conceivable that the AI might have been notified that it is not to drive the car in such a locale. Today, if a human decides to sneakily drive in a closed-off or banned off-road area, they can pretty much try to do so and maybe not get caught. In the case of an AI self-driving car, presumably the AI itself might be notified that it is not to take the vehicle into such areas.

 We’ll need to see how the ethics of this plays out, and whether there are regulatory restrictions that might arise.

 Here’s another twist for you. Suppose the AI proceeds to go off-road, presumably at the request of the human occupants. While driving up one of those really steep rock climbs, the AI cannot handle it properly and the self-driving car tumbles off the rock. The human occupants are injured or killed. 

Would the auto maker and tech firm that made the AI be liable? 

You could say that it depends upon what claimed capability the AI self-driving car had for being able to go off-road. I’m sure clever lawyers would assert that the AI should have never gotten the self-driving car into an off-road situation for which the potential for harm was feasible.

I’ve indicated there might be ethics review boards for AI self-driving cars, see my article: https://aitrends.com/selfdrivingcars/ethics-review-boards-and-ai-self-driving-cars/

 About the overall ethics of self-driving cars, see my article: https://aitrends.com/selfdrivingcars/ethically-ambiguous-self-driving-cars/

 Regulations are evolving about self-driving cars, see my article: https://aitrends.com/selfdrivingcars/assessing-federal-regulations-self-driving-cars-house-bill-passed/

 Product liability is going to be a big topic, see my article: https://aitrends.com/selfdrivingcars/product-liability-self-driving-cars-looming-cloud-ahead/

 Speaking of human occupants, there’s another angle to this off-roading topic that is worthy of attention, namely the role of human passengers when an AI self-driving car is off-roading.

 If there are human occupants inside an AI self-driving car when it goes off-roading, should the AI be conversing with those human occupants? For example, the AI self-driving car comes up to a water fording predicament. The AI is unsure whether the vehicle can make it across the water. Maybe it can, maybe it cannot. There is uncertainty involved.

 The AI might ask the human occupants whether they are willing to have the AI take the risk of trying the water fording. If you are inside the self-driving car and trying to flee from a hurricane, you probably are willing to take the risk. If you are merely making your way to the candy store, you’d perhaps tell the AI that you don’t want it to try and cross the water.

 This raises all sorts of complications. Imagine that the only occupants are small children. They were put into the AI self-driving car by their parents and sent along, while the parents had perhaps no idea beforehand that a situation might arise involving the water fording possibility. Now, the AI is asking those young children to make a potential life-or-death decision. If you argue that the AI should ask the parents, you are making an assumption that the parents are reachable electronically, which I would dare say might not be feasible and especially if the self-driving car is in an off-road situation.

 Another variant involves having an AI self-driving car that has no human occupants in it, meaning that at the time of going off-road, there is a chance that the self-driving car is merely trying to get to point B from some earlier point A. Or, it might have been commanded by a human that told the AI self-driving car to go ahead and do the dune bashing. Should an AI self-driving car be able to drive in off-road situations and not have any human occupants?

 I suppose it could be that I was at the old gold mine and opted to go into it with my two colleagues and we all three got trapped. If we had an AI self-driving car that had brought us to the mine, it could be that it was timing our exit and if we did not appear after two hours, it would proceed to go get help. Kind of a modern-day version of Lassie.  I think we can easily make the case that we would indeed expect an AI self-driving car to be able to deal with off-road situations regardless of whether humans are present in the AI self-driving car or not.

 For conversing with an AI self-driving car to give driving commands, see my article: https://aitrends.com/selfdrivingcars/car-voice-commands-nlp-self-driving-cars/

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

 For humans helping to teach AI self-driving cars via Machine Learning aspects, see my article: https://aitrends.com/ai-insider/human-aided-training-deep-reinforcement-learning-ai-self-driving-cars/

 For more about Machine Learning and AI self-driving cars, see my article: https://aitrends.com/ai-insider/occams-razor-ai-machine-learning-self-driving-cars-zebra/

 One means to potentially aid an AI self-driving car when it has opted to go off-road would be the use of V2V (vehicle-to-vehicle) electronic communications.

 For the gold mine story, if I had gotten stuck with my colleagues in the gold mine, the AI self-driving car might have just stayed in front of the mine and merely used V2V to alert cars passing along on the main highway that we were in trouble.

The V2V could also be used among several AI self-driving cars to work together when dealing with an off-road driving situation. One AI self-driving car that has come upon a nearly impassable water fording might caution other following AI self-driving cars to turnaround and find a different way to go. Tips and suggestions about the off-road areas could be shared. This would especially be helpful if you assume that the area has no or poor GPS and no maps. The collective AI self-driving cars might be able to map things out, each offering a portion of the bigger picture.

Swarm intelligence and AI self-driving cars is an emerging topic, see my article: https://aitrends.com/selfdrivingcars/swarm-intelligence-ai-self-driving-cars-stigmergy-boids/

 For my article about cognitive AI timing aspects, see: https://aitrends.com/selfdrivingcars/cognitive-timing-for-ai-self-driving-cars/

 For more about Machine Learning (ML) and AI self-driving cars, see my article: https://aitrends.com/selfdrivingcars/machine-learning-benchmarks-and-ai-self-driving-cars/

 For human-aided training of deep reinforcement learning for AI self-driving cars, se my article: https://aitrends.com/ai-insider/human-aided-training-deep-reinforcement-learning-ai-self-driving-cars/

 Machine Learning And Off-Roading

Another means to gradually figure out off-road situations would involve the use of Machine Learning (ML), and particularly deep learning and the use of artificial neural networks.

When multiple AI self-driving cars have gone to a particular off-road location, the data collected by the sensors could be fed into the cloud of the auto maker or tech firm via OTA (Over-The-Air) electronic communications. This data could be combined together and assessed by the ML. Patterns of the locale could be identified. Essentially, a map could be derived and the ways in which to navigate the area could possibly be pattern matched.

 The results of the deep learning could then be fed back down into the AI self-driving cars of the fleet. This would allow other AI self-driving cars that had not yet experienced the particulars of the off-road locale to then potentially be able to do so. Indeed, the overall capability of handling off-road situations should also hopefully be increased. Thus, it would be the case that the ML not only learns from a specific off-road situation, but also generalizes so that other off-road situations of a similar nature could also be better dealt with.

 Some might argue that going truly off-roading is something that humans would want to do as human drivers. 

In other words, even if the AI can handle going off-road, the excitement of going off-roading can only be gleaned if you are sitting in the driver’s seat. As such, there might still be cars that allow for humans to takeover the controls, doing so in limited situations such as off-road competitions and the like. Others might insist that no humans should be able to drive a Level 5 self-driving car, regardless of the reason.

Can you get as much joy from being a passenger as you can being a driver? 

Suppose the AI allows you to direct it while you are off-roading – would that be sufficient as a kind of “back-seat” driver rather than being directly at the driving controls? 

Time will tell.

Conclusion

I’m reminded of the famous line by off-road driver Ivan Stewart that there needs to be a sense of style in how you off-road and he coined the phrase CAR (Comfortable, Accurate, Relaxed). 

He had said that if you have a cup of coffee in a cup holder and it is spilling over or in danger of falling out, you are not doing off-road driving to its pinnacle. Merely navigating a muddy road or climbing a rock is not sufficient, you also need to do it with style and grace. 

This presumably also coincides with providing safety to the off-road experience and helping to ensure that humans are not harmed.

For more about safety and AI self-driving cars, see my article: https://aitrends.com/selfdrivingcars/safety-and-ai-self-driving-cars-world-safety-summit-on-autonomous-tech/

I suppose we need to first get the AI to be able to cope with off-roading, and once we’ve gotten that far, we can then aim for the stylishness elements. 

I assure you though that we are going to need AI that can cope with going off-road. It might be the little kinds of off-roads of life like my movie theatre muddy parking lot, or it might be seeking gold at an abandoned mine in the middle of a desert. 

Off-road, it’s a thing to be dealt with. Let’s step-up to the rocky challenge.

Copyright 2019 Dr. Lance Eliot 

This content is originally posted on AI Trends.