Can Autonomous Cars Make Split Decisions?

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Traffic through construction zone

While many people wonder if they’re ready for self-driving cars, maybe we ought to be asking, “Are autonomous cars ready for us to use?”

With almost daily headlines about such cars getting into accidents, it’s clear that they still struggle to discern conflicting data which we humans even struggle resolving.

Case in point: A freeway near where I live was recently under construction to add additional lanes. A 270-degree, right turn onramp had to be adjusted several times during construction as the freeway lane was regularly modified. After the construction was done and the temporary barriers and posts hauled away, some temporary lines were still left in place. On both the left and right sides of the lane, the lane markers split into two, as illustrated here.

Traffic left and right lane markers splitting

When I approached the split, I was forced to decide which line to follow. Given my infrequent use of that onramp and my acceleration onto the freeway, the uncertainty and confusion remained every time, and would only multiply if following another vehicle or driving at night.

The image below illustrates two similar scenarios. At point A, the yellow line splits, but doesn’t continue to spread. It is used to provide separation between the two lanes through the construction zone. At point B, a white line splits off of the left yellow line and crosses the lane to the yellow line on the right side. While neither scenario is complicated for a human driver, they would sure be good test cases for autonomous cars.

Traffic through construction zone with lane markers splitting

These situations are by no means unusual, and they may leave us to wonder, how well could an autonomous vehicle handle these situations? I don’t know. The recent crashes with Tesla cars in Autopilot mode show that much work and testing still needs to be done.

As an embedded systems expert, I and other team members would keep an eye out for different and difficult scenarios and add them to the list of test cases. It would be wise to be mindful of the above line-split scenarios when testing the embedded systems of autonomous cars.

Driving presents us with very challenging, potentially dangerous situations which require split-second reflexes and decision-making. If we are to entrust our lives to autonomous technology on the roads, which is consistently expected to make similar decisions without fail, then embedded systems experts will need to play a key role in its development.

Gary Stringham is an expert witness and consultant in hardware, software, and firmware. He can be contacted at 208-939-6984.

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