GM’s Self-Driving Cars Head for New York City, Where They’ll Face the Bullies
Starting next year, New Yorkers could join Silicon Valley workers and residents of cities like Phoenix, Pittsburgh, and Boston as players in a grand, growing, autonomous car experiment.
General Motors, through its self-driving startup Cruise Automation, plans to put a fleet of autonomous Chevrolet Bolts onto the streets of lower Manhattan in early 2018. The company is already testing in San Francisco, and once it finalizes its application to run in New York (the governor loves the idea), expects to learn valuable lessons from the city’s colorful chaos.
Those will be important lessons, to be sure. But the move across the country raises a novel question. What happens when New York’s famously aggressive drivers and pedestrians start treating the robocars like so many clueless tourists, rubes to be pushed around and taken advantage of.
It’s just a matter of time before Manhattan pavement pounders learn Cruise’s self-driving cars have the sensors and smarts (and human safety drivers) to always avoid hitting them, no matter who has right-of-way. And while that’s obviously a good thing, it opens AVs to abuse. Just picture the “Hey, I’m walking here!” scene from Midnight Cowboy, but instead of starting a screaming match, the taxi trying to cross the intersection quietly submits to Dustin Hoffman’s Ratso Rizzo.
“This could become a problem with pedestrians ‘bullying’ self-driving cars,” says Bart Selman, an artificial intelligence expert at Cornell University. “Self driving cars behave conservatively, and follow all the rules, so there is a problem when humans push them and bend the rules.” Humans do that a lot, and not just in New York. We speed, roll through stop signs, push yellow lights, jaywalk. For the most part, it works out fine. It’s just part of the dance of sharing the road with other people. Combine robots designed to treat the rules of the road as gospel and humans who know they can take advantage of them, and the dance floor can become a mosh pit.
Even in a calmer environment than Manhattan at rush hour, crossing the street is an masterclass in non-verbal, nearly subconscious communication and calculation. Is the approaching driver braking gently or approaching aggressively? Is he making eye contact, or is he watching the traffic light? Do you raise a hand in thanks, or a finger in recrimination? These small actions build a bigger picture about the actions of your fellow humans that you know and they how to read. When there’s nobody in the driver’s seat, a large part of that communication will disappear.
So if you want a working street network, you’re going to have to learn how to deal with AVs. And you’ll have to be nice.
The good news is that the robots have already started adapting to the way humans drive. Usually, that means adding a dash of aggression to the algorithm. Waymo’s cars will edge forward at four-way stops to make sure they get their turn to go. They’ll speed in certain situations where keeping up with the speed of traffic seems safer than following the legal limit.
In people-stuffed Manhattan, belligerence may not be the best path forward for Cruise. But there are other ways to facilitate communication. A team at Berkeley taught its car to back up just a smidge to indicate when it’s ceding right-of way. Friendly sound cues (think more bicycle bell then car horn) can warn people a car is about to muscle its way through. Mitsubishi just unveiled plans for a “Safe and Secure” lighting system that projects large arrows onto the ground when a car is backing up, or next to a door that’s about to fly open, potentially into the path of a cyclist. Silicon Valley startup Drive.ai is testing a rooftop billboard design to convey its intentions to its human neighbors.
Before they’re really ready, these cars must know how to read human intentions more accurately, using cameras and a clever AI. Is that person about to jump into its path, or just stepping off the sidewalk to get around a slack-jawed tourist?
But you, dear human, will have to do your part, too. Start by not taking advantage of the fact that these vehicles are built to never hit you. Perhaps not trusting in the goodness of people (or at least New Yorkers), Selman says the best move here may be regulation, reminding people that existing right-of-way rules still apply. Enforcing jaywalking penalties might be a start. (Of course, try doing that in New York, where pedestrians rule and gridlocked streets often force people to weave through each other as the lights uselessly change color.)
The key is balance: rules that keep everyone safe, but also moving. “Overall safety will go up, but you can’t make it too extreme or the cars will not move at all,” says Selman. The grand experiment is just beginning, but now you get to take part. Just remember that robots deserve your respect, too.