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Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Centaur Driving - Semi-Autonomous and the Quest for Level 5

In 1997, IBM's Deep Blue defeated chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov. After this defeat, Kasparov started a new class of chess competition; one where humans and computers co-operate as a team, instead of contending with each other.

These human-computer chess teams are called cyborgs or centaurs.

Humans and computers use very different methods to play chess. When combined, these methods are highly complimentary. This means that centaurs play at a level that neither a computer nor human alone can achieve. Centaur teams have achieved new heights never before seen in chess. These games have both highly tactical plays and the beauty of strategic plans.

As part of a centaur, average chess players have, occasionally, played at the level of human grandmasters. The computer gives the team a list of select moves from a massive list of possible moves. When several moves all have equal mathematical value, the human can use experience, intuition, or psychology to determine the best of the otherwise equal value moves. Additionally, the computer can show the probable outcomes of human suggested moves. This takes lapse-in-concentration mistakes out of the game, while keeping the creativity of unorthodox moves a possibility.

Centaur human-computer teams have taken chess to a level of play never seen before.

Automated Driving

How could this human-computer collaboration apply to driving?

The SAE (Society of Automotive Engineers) and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) have a six level [level 0 through level 5] automated vehicle scale.

If you are interested in the details of each level, you can look them up. I'll just give a quick overview here.

Level 0: no automation. No cruise control, no traction control, no anti-lock brakes. Good luck finding a vehicle at this level on the road today.

Level 1 - 4: Each level has increasing automation functions, from cruise control and self-park up to traffic awareness and automated steering. In all of these levels, the driver is expected to be ready to take over should the automatic systems encounter an obstacle or situation it doesn't understand.

Johnny Cab from Total Recall (1990)
Level 5: This is the highest level. Other than setting the destination and starting the system, no human intervention is required. The automatic system can drive to any location where it is legal to drive. This is full self-driving autonomy. Vehicles at this level do not require a human driver interface (steering wheel, pedals...) and it could operate when the vehicle is unoccupied. Think Johnny Cab.

Centaur Driving 

Level 5 may be the highest, but it's boring. The human is simply a passenger. You get in, tell it where you want to go and sit back. This is the direction the technology is headed, and when it arrives, it will be hailed as a great victory. It will allow the elderly, those under the influence, and people with disabilities safe mobility options but we are still years from full autonomy. Legislation alone ensures this is years away. Level 3/4, semi-autonomous driving, is happening today, it is a needed step to get to level 5 since humans will effectively be training the system, and it is far more interesting.

With semi-autonomous driving the human driver and the vehicle automation system work together to control the car. The vehicle can drive itself in many situations, but the human driver is required to be there and to be attentive; ready to take over if/when needed. This is the level most like the Centaur chess teams above. The strengths of both the human and the computer are brought to bear to move your car down the road.

The vehicle has situational awareness. It understands when it can manage the driving tasks, and when it should pass control to the human half of the team. Similarly, when the human is driving, the automated system is watching and can alert you if the vehicle is too far from the center of the lane and take over control of the brakes if an impact is imminent. Completely eliminating driver distraction isn't possible, but having an ever-alert computer co-pilot that can warn the driver when things are potentially dangerous, is a great improvement.

An ever-alert computer co-pilot can focus the driver when things are potentially dangerous.

As autonomous driving technologies (such as computer vision, sensory information, machine learning...) improve, the amount of required human driver intervention will decrease. As billions of miles of driving data are collected and analyzed, the database of driving situations the automated system can handle grows.

Here are some of the things a Centaur driving system currently offer, could offer, or soon will offer:
  • Route selection - With real-time traffic information the vehicle would offer alternatives routes to save you time (smartphone navigation apps offer this feature today).
  • Lane departure warning via haptic feedback virtual rumble strips - rumble strips are used to alerts drowsy or distracted drivers that they have drifted out of their lane. An automated system could simulate this by vibrating the driver's seat when it detects that the vehicle has drifted from its lane.
  • Reading signage - Ever had this happen, you wonder 'what is speed limit on this street?' You missed the last speed limit sign and you don't see one ahead on the road. In a Tesla (with the right options), you can glance down at the driver's console and see a graphical representation of the sign. This is a simple and handy driver assist.
  • Adaptive Cruise Control (ACC) or Traffic Aware Cruise Control (TACC) - These systems let you set a speed and the car will slow down when there is traffic slowing on the road ahead. This is great on the freeway when there is little to no traffic and it is even better in stop and go traffic. Stop and go traffic can be frustrating and mind numbing. A cruise control system that watches the car in front of you allows you divert your attention to a phone call or the song on the radio.
  • Watching for the green - have you ever been behind a car waiting at red light. The light turns green, but the car in front of you doesn't move, you wait 15-20 seconds, they are still sitting there, looking through their back window you see they are on their phone. You give them a gentle tap on the horn. They look up and finally notice the light has changed. This problem is only getting worse. Well, if your car had a forward looking camera, the car could play a happy little chime when it sees that the light has turned green. This would allow the driver to divert their attention when they are sitting at a red light. Since they are doing this anyway, I would love to see more cars with this feature. In this situation, the human driver is in full control of the vehicle, but the centaur driver more aware than a human alone.  
  • Display of surrounding vehicles - With Tesla Autopilot HW 1.0 (their latest vehicles have AP HW 2.0), the driver's display shows you the vehicles ahead of you that the car's sensor system detects. There are also object indicators on the sides. This does not replace looking before you change lanes, but a quick glance there can tell you about the vehicles around you on the road. These systems are vital when Autopilot is controlling the vehicle. However, when the human is controlling the vehicle, much like the item above, this system increases the driver's awareness of the surrounding environment. 
  • Seeing the invisible - With the vision systems the cars use, they are able to see things that the driver cannot. They are able to bounce radar under the car directly in front of you and to 'see' the car in front of them. The 2 cars ahead car could be completely blocked from the drivers view. Since the automated system can respond to the 2 cars ahead car, it would be able to brake or slow down when they do. This could prevent a rear end collision by the two cars in front of you from becoming a 3+ car pile up. 
Several of these features are offered in driver assistance systems such as Tesla's Autopilot and others. The systems will continue to improve, cameras and sensors will get better, the software will improve greatly. If they are not already there, these systems are coming to a vehicle near you soon.

Just as the centaur chess teams raised the level of play to the highest that we've ever seen, these cyborg driving teams could make our roads safer than they have ever been.

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Related Posts:
How Self-Driving Cars Will Change The Way We Ride
What is Up With You and Centaurs?
Your Car Will Drift To Save Your Life

Pedantic Footnotes: 
Automated driving, autonomous driving, driverless car, ADAS, ... all have distinct definitions. In some cases the differences are subtle, in other cases, they are significant. I was not as strict with these terms as I could have been. And since I'm on this topic, I don't like the term semi-autonomous. To me, this is like saying "a little unique". Either something is unique, or it is not. When someone writes "a little unique", they might mean "rare" or the like. Similarly, "autonomous" generally does not have degrees. There can be levels of automation until the vehicles achieves the "autonomous" level. But this term semi-autonomous allows the vehicle to be autonomous in some situations or locations and not autonomous in other cases. Because of this, plus the fact that the term generally used in the auto press, I used it too.