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If self-driving cars don’t scare you enough…

July 3rd, 2010 at 06:14am

Then this certainly will:

The National Federation of the Blind and Virginia Tech plan to demonstrate a prototype vehicle next year equipped with technology
that helps a blind person drive a car independently.

The technology, called “nonvisual interfaces,” uses sensors to let a blind driver maneuver a car based on information transmitted to him about his surroundings: whether another car or object is nearby, in front of him or in a neighboring lane.

It seems that, not content with the already scary prospect of having cars which drive themselves, these researchers want to take a car which could in theory drive itself and have it pass its decisions on to a blind human as directions.

Virginia Tech first created a dune buggy as part of a feasibility study that used sensor lasers and cameras to act as the eyes of the vehicle. A vibrating vest was used to direct the driver to speed up, slow down or make turns.

The blind organization was impressed by the results and urged the researchers to keep pushing. The results will be demonstrated next January on a modified Ford Escape sport utility vehicle
at the Daytona International Speedway before the Rolex 24 race.

The latest vehicle will use nonvisual interfaces to help a blind driver operate the car. One interface, called DriveGrip, uses gloves with vibrating motors on areas that cover the knuckles. The vibrations signal to the driver when and where to turn.

Another interface, called AirPix, is a tablet about half the size of a sheet of paper with multiple air holes, almost like those found on an air hockey game. Compressed air coming out of the device helps inform the driver of his or her surroundings, essentially creating a map of the objects around a vehicle. It would show whether there’s another vehicle in a nearby lane or an obstruction in the road.

So let me get this straight, the blind human can’t see where they’re going in order to verify the car computer’s proposals, and would instead just be doing what the computer tells them to do, effectively adding a delay to the computer doing whatever it thinks is the right course of action, whilst also adding an extra potential point of error if the human inevitably ends up doing something which the computer didn’t request.

Quite frankly, the idea of cars driving themselves scares me enough given the fact that I have spent far too much time in my professional career and personal time troubleshooting why computers won’t do as they are expected. Admittedly, most of the time if the problem is truly due to “computer error” and not the operator pushing the wrong buttons, then the “computer error” is generally more accurately described as a “programmer error”. Traditionally, this isn’t a life-threatening problem…but when the error surfaces in the subroutine responsible for handling animals running on to the road at night in the wet when another car just veered in to your lane to avoid the animal and you’ve got a five zillion tonne petrol tanker tailgating you…how do you spell “catastrophe” again?

Once you add the delay of having a human merely follow the orders of the computer…do you see my point or should I find a way to spell “catastrophe” in a bigger way?

The argument which is often thrown back at me when I mention my issues with computers driving cars either directly or by proxy is that they’ve been flying aeroplanes for years. In many ways this is true, but aeroplanes also tend to operate in an environment where there is a much greater acceptable margin of error. On the road if a computer decides to accelerate harshly in traffic, it will be only moments before there is a collision. In an aeroplane, if a computer puts the aeroplane in to a nosedive, there is time for a human to assume manual control of the aircraft and avoid a collision.

Quite frankly, I would much rather teach dogs to drive cars manually than to have computers driving cars or (worse still) people, blind or otherwise, controlling a car at the pure behest of a computer. Dogs do, after all, possess some intelligence and an ability to learn…who knows, perhaps guide dogs could become chauffeurs for the blind. It certainly seems like a more sensible prospect than having a computer dictate every driving action to a person who has no way of knowing if the computer has even the faintest clue what it’s on about.

Samuel

Entry Filed under: Bizarreness

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