The autonomous car era is upon us and accelerating at an astonishing rate. Where just several years ago the state of the art in “autonomous” tech was limited to so-called radar-based “active cruise control” systems, today Tesla, Mercedes-Benz, and Volvo all offer vehicles with a level of semi-autonomy that would be have been unthinkable just three or four years ago.
Indeed, autonomous systems and technologies have advanced at a staggering rate: both the hardware with which vehicles see the world around them, as well as cloud-based software to help systems learn and improve over time by aggregating drivers’ journeys — or, in Mercedes’ case with the 2017 E-Class, being situationally aware of other 2017 E-Class vehicles — are poised to enable the first fully autonomous cars in customers’ hands by 2020 or so.
This is an incredible, fantastic thing; a real feat of engineering prowess and determination, and it’s improving at an astonishing rate.
There’s just one small problem though: no amount of clever computer image processing, LiDAR, and radar feedback, nor any infinitely large database of aggregated driving data will ever enable autonomous cars to “see” snow-covered roads; roads without adequate lane markings; or other situations in which even a human would struggle with sure footing.
Put another way, technological innovation with respect to autonomous cars’ visual acuity will soon reach an impasse beyond which further optical fidelity will no longer be limited by the onboard hardware and software, but rather by the mundane eventuality of a road which, for all intents and purposes, is not visible: not to cameras, not to radar, not to anything.
Fortunately, a new proposal known as AVRIS — Autonomous Vehicle Road Improvement and Standardization — seeks to remedy this looming technological impediment by doing for the 21st century’s autonomous vehicles what paved roads did for the 20th century’s first motor vehicles: it wants to make the roads easier for autonomous cars to negotiate, just as asphalt was an improvement over dirt paths 100 years ago.
If you haven’t yet heard of AVRIS, there’s a good reason for it: it doesn’t exist. Not yet, anyway. In fact, it’s just a little something I’ve come up with; and, if I’m honest, I’m not entirely thrilled with the acronym, but it’ll do for now.
So this new proposal — my proposal, really — is simple: the USDOT needs to roll out new standards for road design, including and especially with respect to markings — or, more accurately, technology-enhanced markings — to ensure that lanes and lane markings are always clearly visible to autonomous cars, no matter the driving conditions.
Two general points come readily to mind:
For the first point, I think this is a relatively trivial, not to mention obvious, partial solution: picture German freeways, and you’ve got some sort of an idea what I’m on about: impeccable road maintenance, with clearly and explicit lane markings that are refreshed the moment they start to fade. This will be expensive, but it will not be technologically challenging. Indeed, it could usher in an era of entirely new graphics design for roads and signs: still easily legible by humans, but with a priority in mind towards the cars’ benefit. Perhaps more contrasting colors; greater variety in color coding; more defined and better illustrated icons, then.
It’s the second point, however, that will prove most daunting, and will be limited not just by time and money and pretty new graphics, but clever engineering. There needs to be a way to make roads and lanes visible even beneath several centimeters of snow. Some ideas come to mind.
First, road shoulders could implement an electronic barrier of sorts, not dissimilar to how the glide slope and localizer work for instrument landings at an airport runway: posts could be installed along shoulders that emit two radio frequencies — say a low and high frequency — and the car knows it’s at the shoulder when the car “sees” both frequencies roughly equal to one another. If the car sees more of, say, the higher frequency, then it’s falling into the shoulder. There’s probably better ways to accomplish this in 2017 than with 1960s aviation radio frequency tech, but at least this should serve as a starting point for discussion and to illustrate my point.
Lane markings, however, pose another altogether more challenging problem: obviously we can’t have obstructions in the middle of the road; no posts emitting radio waves, then.
Lane markings could be wired up to produce either heat and/0r radio emissions of their own, effectively causing them to glow, at least in certain parts of the electromagnetic spectrum. If the emissions are heat, then the cars’ infrared cameras could (potentially) see the heating through the snow and ice; alternatively, if sufficiently strong, it could simply melt the snow and ice entirely. This idea isn’t entirely without precedent.
(As an aside, this could be further assisted using solar panel road surfaces, with excess charge stored in giant capacitors and used to heat the road surface, with any remaining excess still sold back to the grid.)
If the emissions are indeed some sort of electromagnetic waves, they would have to be sufficient to tunnel through a layer of snow and ice. It’s been a while since I’ve studied electricity and magnetism, but I suspect that microwaves may do the trick: the microwaves would (again) serve as a heating element which would be absorbed by the snow and ice, and thus heat them, and again, render them visible to infrared cameras (or, again, simply melt it altogether). I guess the main issue is whether the heat could be adequately confined to the narrow lane marking graphics and not overly dissipated into a useless blob of warmth. Perhaps thorough melting is, after all, the optimal solution.
Maybe terahertz imaging, otherwise known as millimeter wave, is the solution? It is, after all, remarkably adept at visualizing (through) things with high liquid content; this is what the full-body scanners at airports use.
In any case, the overarching goal must be to make otherwise invisible road surfaces nevertheless perfectly visible. This can, of course, only be accomplished by making the snow, ice, or other debris obstructing the road surface effectively transparent to whatever imaging technology the cars are using, whether it’s radar, LiDAR, infrared, or otherwise.
I realize what I’m proposing is a fairly massive thing, a veritable overhaul of the entire United States road network. But once upon a time, not that long ago, we didn’t have any paved roads at all; today, we don’t have any autonomous-friendly, always-visible roads. If we were once able to overhaul our roads from dirt to asphalt, I don’t see anything (besides money and bureaucracy) that should prevent us going from asphalt to fully digital, as it were.
As I’ve written time and time again, I have no doubt that autonomous cars will start to trickle into customers’ hands by 2020; will be mandated on certain freeways by the 2030s; constitute a majority of vehicular traffic by the 2050s-2060s; and fully replace non-autonomous cars by the 2070s-2080s. (And no, that ridiculous “trolly paradox” simply isn’t an issue.)
My concern, however — due in no small part to a complete and utter lack of discourse on the matter, until, as far as I know, this essay now — is that such progress will eventually reach a peak and be severely hindered if we continue to focus only on the cars themselves, and not on the roads as well.
Instrument landing systems for airplanes would have been impossible but for radio towers emitting their beautiful overlapping bubbles of 90Hz and 150Hz radio signals — no amount of fancy computer vision equipment could land a plane today without making those runways effectively visible even through pea soup fog — so it should be seen as a similarly vain effort to expect cars to drive on roads utterly invisible due to, say, snow and ice, absent some technology to augment the roads’ visibility in the first place.
Put another way, giving a blind person vision is of little use if the pages of the book they’re trying to read are covered in dirt.
NB. A little known fact: I am a California-licensed attorney; any fellow attorneys want to help me draft a bill and get this moving forward?