Rocket Man Human Drivers and AI Self-Driving Cars: Outrunning Them


By Dr. Lance Eliot,the AI Trends Insider

I was on the freeway the other day and traffic was moving along rather smoothly. Even though there were quite a number of cars on the road, we were all doing a steady 55 miles per hour. That’s an accomplishment in the crowded freeways of Southern California. Some days I get maybe an average speed of 10 miles per hour during commute times, and often it drops to around 5 miles per hour on the average. Whenever the freeway moves along at a fast clip, I look around wondering if maybe the end of the earth is nearly upon us, or some other miracle has occurred that no one bothered to tell me about.

Well, there I am, enjoying my speedy 55 miles per hour, when in my rear view mirror I spot a Rocket Man. When I say Rocket Man, I am generically referring to any human driver that decides they are going to rocket through traffic. It could be a man or a woman, and I just use “Rocket Man” because it is a handy and catchy term for the behavior. Please think of it as Rocket Person.

I could see the car about a quarter mile behind me. It was moving forward at a fast pace, probably doing at least 20 to 30 miles an hour faster speed than the prevailing traffic. I would guess that the car was going around 85 to 90 miles per hour. This might be Okay if the driver was on a straightaway that had no traffic, but instead this driver was doing that kind of speed while weaving into and around other cars. The offending car would zip ahead in the fast lane, come upon a “slow” car that was doing the 55 miles per hour of the rest of us, and then dive into the lane to the right when there was an opening.

The driver would then zip forward in that lane, and was looking to make the next jump to another lane, since the driver had reached the bumper of a car in the existing lane and was now blocked from going at the 90 miles per hour clip. Into and out of the other lanes of traffic and narrowly missing hitting other cars was the pattern of driving behavior. The wild driver would almost always come right up to the bumper of a car in whatever lane the wild driver was in and then in a semi-panic mode desperately try to switch lanes. It was a very dangerous effort. The speeding driver would muscle into another lane and cause the cars in that lane to slow down to let in the wild driver.

I am sure that in the mind of the wild driver that he or she perceived the rest of us as sheep. We were just abiding by traffic flow, and this other driver figured why be so sheepish. Instead, this aggressive driver figured that they would try to tie together any possible openings and jump from one to the other. I am further guessing that the wild driver didn’t think this was particularly dangerous. They probably thought it was perfectly fine as a driving strategy. I’ve spoken to such drivers and they claim too that they are actually helping traffic. They think that they are optimizing the available driving space by using it in this fashion.  No sense in leaving any gaps or openings, they figure, and instead maximize traffic flow by having cars in all available roadway space.

Of course, that’s a crock.

This Rocket Man driver is putting all other drivers at a heightened risk of injury or death. Their wild antics can easily cause an accident to occur. This can happen by their direct actions such as they ram into a car and cause the accident to happen. It can also occur by their indirect actions, such that if the rest of traffic is trying to adjust to this nutty behavior, you can have innocent cars that get caught into a domino effect that leads to car crashes. In other words, if car W, the wild driver, cuts off a driver X, and then driver X hits their brakes, but driver Y behind driver X wasn’t expecting it, and then driver X and Y hit each other, the driver W can pretend they had nothing to do with it.

Some of these knuckle head drivers will even insist that if other cars get into an accident because of their rude behavior, it merely shows that those other drivers are bad drivers and should not be on the freeways. The wild driver believes that other drivers should be watching out for them, and it is not the wild driver that needs to be on alert. All I’m doing is weaving into and out of traffic, the Rocket Man says, and if other drivers are so stupid that they can’t handle it, they deserve to get into a wreck.

I often wish that I had some instant means to inform the police about such drivers. You look around and hopelessly wish that a highway patrol car will be on the freeway and spot such a driver. I almost never see these drivers getting caught. I’d like to pretend that they do. I’d like to pretend that their behavior is so frequent that they ultimately are getting caught. But, unfortunately, I would realistically guess that it is somewhat rare that they get caught. Getting caught is not especially likely since these wild drivers are usually watching for the cops, and they try to turn innocent when they see the police. Once the police are no longer around, they continue their wild driving.

Furthermore, it would be difficult for a highway patrol car to realize what is going on. If the wild driver was on a straightaway and doing 90 miles per hour, a highway patrol car could easily see that the driver was speeding and observe as such over a clear-cut distance. Instead, by weaving in and out of traffic, the wild driver is actually somewhat obscured and hidden from view. Only if you were observing from above, such as being in a police helicopter or plane, could you readily see the pattern of the driver and realize they are driving recklessly and at high speeds.

Some of these wild drivers do other illegal acts too. They will often dart into and out of the car pool lanes, even though they are not legally allowed to do so. They will often make use of the emergency lane as though it is a conventional lane, committing another illegal act. They will often intimidate other cars and pretty much chase them, and take other actions that are totally abusive of the privileges of being able to drive a car. You might say that their weaving into and out of traffic is really just a microcosm on their overall bad behavior as a driver. They are likely drivers that have disdain for the civilized rules of driving, and we merely happen to witness more clearly their disdain when they act in these aggressive manners.

That being said, there are certainly some instances of the normal everyday driver that opts to drive in a Rocket Man like way. If you are late for work and worried about losing your job, you’re likely to adopt that same bad practice that day or that moment. Or, if you are maybe in a joyful playful mood, you might think it is fun to momentarily try to weave in and out of traffic. It becomes almost like a personal game of Frogger. Though, you are at risk of bodily harm due to driving a motor vehicle at high speeds, and others around you are also at heightened risk, you nonetheless treat driving like a game at times. When behind the wheel of a car, we all sometimes forget that we are in a killing machine and can become distanced from reality by acting as though we are in some gigantic video game.

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

At the Cybernetic Self-Driving Car Institute, we are developing AI that takes into account the Rocket Man drivers and can undertake various evasive actions accordingly. Furthermore, the self-driving car can become a Rocket Man, if needed, by using the same techniques that we generally don’t want cars to do (more on this in a moment).

First, let’s discuss how to detect that a car is driving in a Rocket Man way.

The sensory devices of the self-driving car should be looking behind the self-driving car and up ahead in front of the driving car. These might be a combination of LIDAR, cameras, ultra-sonic, etc. By analyzing the sensory data, what we are looking for is car behavior outside the norm. If the norm of the traffic at the time of analysis is that most of the cars are doing speed A, and if a car is doing a much faster speed B, we want to flag internally that as a car to be further closely observed. It stands out among the rest of the traffic.

This car B could be making a one-time sudden lane change and thus it is not truly a Rocket Man. Thus, we need to watch over time to see whether a car is consistently acting as a Rocket Man. It usually doesn’t take much time to ascertain the behavior. The biggest problem is usually being able to track the Rocket Man candidate. There are likely other cars and trucks on the freeway that obscure the wild driver. This is especially the case due to the wild driver weaving into and out of lanes. Imagine it is like playing a game of hide-and-seek. One moment, you can see the wild car, the next moment is seems to disappear.

Our main criteria is the speed differential in comparison to the other traffic, combined with the rapid lane changes, combined with the narrow gaps between cars. The Rocket Man has a tendency to run right up to the bumper of other cars. In their little minds, they think that this is the optimum way to make forward progress. If they were to study simulations, which we’ve done extensively, they would find out that their bumper nearing antics is actually not the fastest way to skirt through traffic. Had they a more open mind, they might realize that a more optimal path is possible, but most of the time they are just doing a monkey-see monkey-do kind of driving practice.

In fact, in some of our testing on the roads, we’ve been able to move ahead at a faster pace than the average Rocket Man, by adopting the same principles but performing the actions in a more studied manner. The act of changing lanes and weaving can be done with grace and aplomb, while the crasser approach is not only more dangerous but not even necessarily as successful. In essence, sometimes weaving across all four lanes of traffic, though it might seem like a faster way to proceed, can be beat by for example weaving only within two lanes of traffic. It involves lining up the weaving opportunities and timing them just right.

You might be wondering why I am describing this driving behavior as wild and yet at the same time touting there are better ways to do it. Am I being inconsistent?  Nope. The reason why it is useful to do this kind of driving in a better way is related to the future of driving. Eventually, some believe that the roadways will have only self-driving cars (there won’t be any human driven cars). Though it is questionable that this will happen, let’s go with the assumption for the moment.

If all cars on the freeway are self-driving cars, they can potentially coordinate their movements. It will be like a herd or a swam of animals that work in unison with each other. As such, the overall pace for all of the self-driving cars can be heightened by working together. This might also involve allowing some cars to do the Rocket Man like behavior. Suppose that the freeway is filled with self-driving cars, all moving along at some normal speed, and then one of the self-driving cars has an emergency, such as a human occupant that has had a heart attack. We might want that self-driving car to then perform Rocket Man maneuvers to allow it to proceed ahead at a faster pace than the rest of the traffic.

I realize that some of you that are cynics will say that you’d want your self-driving car to always be the Rocket Man, and thus move faster than the rest of the traffic. But, of course, if all the self-driving cars did this, we’d not really end-up moving any faster. All in all, we will likely ultimately have new driving regulations that will indicate when self-driving cars are to behave like the rest of traffic, and when they can do individualized acts such as a Rocket Man (such as the heart attack example of an occupant).

It is for these above reasons that we not only are developing AI to cope with the human driven Rocket Man behavior, but also want the AI of the self-driving car to be able to drive like a Rocket Man. The Rocket Man skill is worthwhile for the AI to have available. This does not mean that it is skill that should be used, and presumably would only be used when appropriate.

Let’s get back to the detection of human driven Rocket Man behavior.

Once the sensory data has been examined and we’ve detected a potential Rocket Man, the virtual model of the driving world is then updated to flag that car. We can then begin to predict what that car will do next. Based on the prediction, the self-driving car AI can take a defensive posture.

For example, if the Rocket Man is coming up from behind the self-driving car, the AI can opt to switch lanes if that will help avoid having the Rocket Man get onto the bumper of the self-driving car. The AI might opt to slow down, or speed-up, depending upon which approach is best for the circumstance. Generally, the AI is trying to avoid the Rocket Man from ramming into the self-driving car.

I’ve seen some human drivers that have either unintentionally or intentionally cut-off a Rocket Man driver. This can anger the Rocket Man driver and make them do even worse things. The Rocket Man will sometimes purposely get in front of a car that cut them off, and then play a dangerous game of braking to make the other car get scared. This of course actually slows down the progress of the Rocket Man, but they often seem to be of such a mired mind that seeking revenge is apparently more important than speeding ahead.

If necessary, the AI of the self-driving car might even opt to take the self-driving car off the freeway entirely, for the moment, and allow the Rocket Man to proceed on their way. It all depends on how desperately the Rocket Man seems to be driving and the predicted danger to the self-driving car and its occupants.

Speaking of the occupants of the self-driving car, we also have the AI inform the occupants about the Rocket Man, if appropriate to do so. This is based on whether the occupants have indicated to the AI that they want to be kept informed about the traffic conditions. On the one hand, the AI does not want to needlessly panic the occupants, while at the same time if the AI is going to be taking evasive maneuvers then the occupants might be wondering and concerned as to why the self-driving car is taking such actions.

Once we have self-driving cars that are communicating with each other via V2V (vehicle to vehicle) communications, the AI could inform other cars to be watchful of the Rocket Man. This would aid other self-driving cars that have not yet detected the Rocket Man, or that have software that is not as advanced that is able to detect Rocket Man behavior. Likewise, if self-driving cars are able to communicate externally, they could potentially alert the police – which then takes us to my earlier point about wanting to let the cops know when a driver of this ilk is on the roadway.

I have been describing the Rocket Man as a lone wolf driver. There is nothing that precludes there being multiple Rocket Man drivers at the same time. Indeed, I see this during my daily commute. There are often several Rocket Man drivers all vying to get ahead in the traffic. The AI therefore needs to be able to handle the one-at-time circumstance and the gaggle of Rocket Man drivers too.

This content is originally posted on AI Trends.