This past weekend the highly anticipated movie “Unhinged” starring actor extraordinaire Russell Crowe opened in U.S. movie theatres. Given the extraordinary circumstances facing the movie industry, the film did surprisingly well at the box office.
If you don’t know anything about the movie, you might want to close your eyes for a moment and then skip quickly to the next paragraph. That being said, via the abundant trailers and the overall buzz about the movie, it has already been widely publicized that a key hook to the storyline involves a spate of road rage. In fact, over the last several months, Crowe did several mock Public Service Announcements that elucidated the dangers of road rage and simultaneously helped promote his new film.
I sincerely hope that you’ve never experienced road rage, though it seems that anyone driving on the highways and byways for any length of time is bound to inevitably come upon a road rage incident (see my discussion at this link here). You might witness two cars wildly chasing after each other or perhaps have a driver that abruptly cuts you off in traffic because they believe you have somehow transgressed their driving activities. Seems like road rage can happen at any time of the day, in any locale, and for whatever type of reason, including no bona fide reason at all (to be clear, even if there is a reason, this still does not justify and nor warrant carrying out a road rage act).
We certainly expect that human drivers are apt to occasionally go wacky and flareup into a road rage fit. To try and avoid this outcome, cautious drivers are especially civil to other drivers amid an outside hope that doing so will keep those on-edge drivers from suddenly boiling over. Meanwhile, there are those hardened drivers that do not seem to care whether their behavior produces a feverish combustion of road rage. One supposes that the potential spark for a road rage confrontation is as varied as people are, thus, perhaps there is no ready way to predict what will ignite a road rage (though, discourteous driving would seem a high potential toward triggering it).
If human drivers are prone at times to slide into a road rage cataclysm, there seem to be one means to incontrovertibly avert those shady moments, namely by replacing human drivers with AI driving systems. Some pundits look with great anticipation to the day that human drivers are no longer sitting at the wheel anymore. In short, if those darned humans cannot take the heat, get them out of the kitchen entirely. The mantra becomes: AI driving systems to the rescue.
But is it really the case that AI-based true self-driving cars will obviate the road rage phenomena?
Let’s unpack the matter and see.
Understanding The Levels Of Self-Driving Cars
As a clarification, true self-driving cars are ones that the AI drives the car entirely on its own and there isn’t any human assistance during the driving task.
These driverless vehicles are considered a Level 4 and Level 5 (see my explanation at this link here), while a car that requires a human driver to co-share the driving effort is usually considered at a Level 2 or Level 3. The cars that co-share the driving task are described as being semi-autonomous, and typically contain a variety of automated add-on’s that are referred to as ADAS (Advanced Driver-Assistance Systems).
There is not yet a true self-driving car at Level 5, which we don’t yet even know if this will be possible to achieve, and nor how long it will take to get there.
Meanwhile, the Level 4 efforts are gradually trying to get some traction by undergoing very narrow and selective public roadway trials, though there is controversy over whether this testing should be allowed per se (we are all life-or-death guinea pigs in an experiment taking place on our highways and byways, some point out, see my indication at this link here).
Since semi-autonomous cars require a human driver, the adoption of those types of cars won’t be markedly different than driving conventional vehicles, so there’s not much new per se to cover about them on this topic (though, as you’ll see in a moment, the points next made are generally applicable).
For semi-autonomous cars, it is important that the public needs to be forewarned about a disturbing aspect that’s been arising lately, namely that despite those human drivers that keep posting videos of themselves falling asleep at the wheel of a Level 2 or Level 3 car, we all need to avoid being misled into believing that the driver can take away their attention from the driving task while driving a semi-autonomous car.
You are the responsible party for the driving actions of the vehicle, regardless of how much automation might be tossed into a Level 2 or Level 3.
Self-Driving Cars And Road Rage
For Level 4 and Level 5 true self-driving vehicles, there won’t be a human driver involved in the driving task.
All occupants will be passengers.
The AI is doing the driving.
Great, you might assume, since we would not expect AI to launch into a road rage driving fit.
Well, yes, this sentiment is generally true, though keep in mind that the AI driving system can be whatever the developers want it to be. In other words, presumably no automaker or self-driving tech firm in its right mind is crafting AI that will drive in a manic manner. One would surely hope that being a crazed or even systemic “unhinged driver” is not on the list of AI-based self-driving car desired requirements. That seems to be rather axiomatic.
Nonetheless, it would be foolish to assume that any AI system is always going to be strictly proper as though there is some natural law that governs the AI’s behavior. Like any kind of automation, there is still a chance that the AI could go astray, for which the developers have hopefully done their best to try and detect and prevent from occurring.
Some seem to ascribe a semblance of perfection to AI. Whether this is due to how science fiction stories have sometimes portrayed AI, or maybe because we do not think of AI as having emotions, the overall point is that the AI being devised for self-driving cars is decidedly not perfect and you ought not to fall into the mental trap that it is going to be.
Realizing that there is an oddball chance of AI going rogue, let’s put that to the side and consider it a rather unlikely possibility.
Does this then resolve the road rage phenomena and we can summarily put it aside too?
I’m afraid not.
Here’s the rub.
For quite a while, many years, likely many decades, we are going to have human-driven cars that are intermixing on our streets with AI-driven cars.
That’s a fact.
Those that believe in a Utopian world of entirely and exclusively self-driving cars are dreamers. You can readily bet your bottom dollar that there are going to be humans that will insist on being able to drive a car, vowing that you will only be able to take away the steering wheel by prying it from dead cold hands. People are quite enamored of the “right” to drive (well, it is considered a privilege, at least on public roadways), and attempts to somehow prevent humans from driving a car are going to be met with a protest storm of unimaginable proportions.
Some that wish to do away with the act of human driving are quick to point to the number of car-related fatalities that are incurred each year, which is around 40,000 deaths per year in the United States alone, and emphasize that if self-driving cars can substantively reduce that number, we should all voluntarily give up our driver’s licenses. For any leftover resisters, perhaps new laws would be established that outlaw driving a car on public roads. Inevitably, all new cars might be made without any driving controls for human access, thus, presumably making it nearly impossible for those scalawag humans to drive a car.
This whole matter is going to take a long time to figure out and meanwhile, the vastness and fierceness of resistance to giving up driving are going to be steep. An alternative would be to have streets and highways that are designated for human drivers versus self-driving cars, whether for the entire set of roads or possibly by splitting lanes for each type of driver. Do not fall into the falsehood that this is going to be easy. Sure, painting new lines on the roads are simple, but deciding where human drivers can go and where they cannot go, this once again is brewing for a huge battle.
Suppose self-driving cars are allotted special lanes and can get from point A to point B in say 30 minutes, while the lanes for human-driven cars are boxed-in and end-up causing the drivers to experience a 60-minute drive. If you are in favor of self-driving cars, you would assume that this difference would inspire the human drivers to forego doing the driving and switch over to using self-driving cars. Maybe, but it could also be that the human drivers become upset that they got the short end of the stick and the lanes they have are not as good, or that if they could also drive in the self-driving car lanes then the time for their trips would be shortened accordingly.
This is a merry-go-round that is going to keep on spinning for a protracted time.
Essentially, in any practical sense of the adoption of self-driving cars, there is going to be a mixing of human-driven cars and self-driving cars.
And that’s how road rage is going to continue.
A human-driven car is coming up to a stop sign. The driver is in a rush, perhaps late to an important meeting, or wanting to get home to watch a notable baseball game that is just getting started. Ahead of the human driver is a self-driving car. The self-driving car comes to the stop sign and obediently comes to a stop. Not a rolling stop, but a full honest-to-goodness complete stop.
The human driver that is waiting behind the self-driving car is going bananas. There’s no reason for the self-driving car to come to a complete stop since there isn’t any other traffic nearby. Just run the darned stop sign or at least roll through it. The human driver is getting exasperated. It was a tough day at work and this idiotic AI driving system is the fuse on the powder keg of this human driver.
Finally, the self-driving car proceeds. The human driver zips past the stop sign, comes up to the self-driving car, and makes a rude gesture at the self-driving car.
Your first thought might be that it makes little sense to vent anger towards the AI. It won’t care. It likely won’t even notice.
Perhaps true, but this is not what is going through the mind of the road rage driver. Toss rational thought out the window, as it were.
Okay, so the human driver is irked and makes a futile gesture at the AI. Case closed.
Suppose there is a human passenger inside the self-driving car. Perhaps the passenger, upon seeing the rude gesture, decides to do likewise in return and includes a showy and smirking smile as though suggesting that the human driver is stupid to be rebuffing an AI driving system. The human driver is now utterly steamed.
The human driver decides to cut off the self-driving car, getting the AI to swerve to avoid hitting the human-driven car. Next, the human driver gets directly in front of the self-driving car and comes to a halt. This causes the AI driving system to bring the self-driving car to a halt too.
So far, the AI has done what we might expect it to do, including avoiding a car crash and also coming to a halt when being blocked by a car ahead of it. The thing is, what about the passenger inside the self-driving car. You might suggest that the passenger is now a sitting duck.
If the self-driving car was being driven by a human rather than an AI system, let’s imagine this is an Uber or Lyft, the human driver would presumably attempt to go around the road rage driver and the now halted car. The passenger could be imploring the ride-sharing driver to quickly get away from the nutty driver that has blocked their path forward.
What will the AI do?
Likely, not much. The odds are that the AI is not going to become “convinced” that you need to have the self-driving car skyrocket around the halted car. This is not programmed into the AI and nor a scenario that most of the self-driving car developers are considering right now (it would be rated as an edge or corner case, something of low priority and maybe gotten to once the everyday driving capabilities are fully developed).
The odds are that the self-driving car will have some form of OnStar-like capability, allowing the passenger to make a call to an agent to indicate that assistance is needed. The remote agent might or might not have an ability to activate the car and take over the driving (likely not, for now, see this explanation for why that is the case, at this link here). The agent might be able to communicate electronically to the AI and command the AI to get underway, but this is also a tough situation to rectify because the AI might not have a provision for dealing with a predicament of being blocked by another car.
The agent might call 911, meanwhile, the human road rage nut is already outside the self-driving car and banging on the windows of the vehicle.
All told, the point being that as long as there are human drivers, there remains the opportunity for road rage to be enacted. And, per the earlier assertion that human drivers will be around for quite a while, this means that road rage is not going away simply due to the adoption of self-driving cars.
There are more mind-bending facets to consider.
In the example, the human driver started the road rage. The scenario could readily be turned around, somewhat, by having a passenger inside a self-driving car that purposely attempts to goad a human driver in a nearby vehicle. The passenger might make a rude gesture or stick their head out the window of the self-driving car and berate the human driver in the other car.
At that juncture, the human driver reacts by undertaking a road rage driving action.
To make things really topsy-turvy, consider that people riding in self-driving cars might begin to realize the “sitting duck” nature of doing so, and thus decide that they would rather be driving a car than riding as a passenger in a self-driving car. I know that this logic seems somewhat backward since the culprit to go after are the human drivers that are acting out, but if that is not easily done, the concern for being at the mercy of a road rage driver might be a stimulus to get riders back into driving a car versus being a rider in a self-driving car.
This is of course sad and beguiling.
If there is any kind of silver lining or path out of this conundrum, one is that the self-driving car is apt to be chockful of sensors such as cameras, radar, LIDAR, and the like. This is handy in that it can be used for the AI to drive the car, plus it also can record whatever happens outside of the self-driving car. In that manner, the road rage undertaken is going to get recorded.
The downside is that it is not clear that just because the road rage is going to be recorded that it will necessarily dissuade the road rage drivers. We earlier conceded that they are bound to lose their rational thinking and thus the facet that they are being recorded might not cause them to alter their violence precipitated efforts.
Another helpful element consists of the V2V (vehicle-to-vehicle) electronic communications and V2I (vehicle-to-infrastructure) messaging that self-driving cars are likely to have. In theory, if the AI suspects that a road rage is taking place, it might convey as such via V2V to other nearby cars, seeking help, or alert the police or other authorities via the V2I. This might bring help quickly and aid in preventing the road rage instigator from fully carrying out their actions.
Gloomily, none of that can especially stop a road rage crazed radical from ramming into the self-driving car. Some keep saying that self-driving cars will never get into car crashes, but this is nonsensical since a determined human driver can readily smash into a self-driving car. The AI cannot overcome the law of physics, such that even if the AI tries to maneuver out of the way, a human driver seeking to do evil can still manage to smack into a self-driving car (for my analysis of why zero fatalities is a zero chance, see this link here).
Maybe a subtle “glass is half full” aspect is that there would not be any road rage induced car chases involving a self-driving car per se.
A human driver might opt to follow a self-driving car, but it is unlikely that the AI is programmed to try and run away and become part of a determined car chase. Instead, the AI will tend to obey the rules of the road and make it’s way along, at safe speeds in a legally driven manner, for which this is not much of a car chase since the AI isn’t trying to escape.
Shifting gears, a concluding thought for now. Once we have some prevalence of self-driving cars, the movies showing car chases will begin to look outdated, perhaps nostalgic. Wishfully, it would be nice if the movies could no longer showcase road rage, due to the aspect that self-driving cars will have made road rage a distant memory, but it seems that actors and actresses will still be able to get roles as the incensed and unhinged driver, despite the wonderment of AI-based true self-driving cars being on our roadways.
At least it keeps the movie industry going.
Are we not entertained?