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As you drive through a small town you pull up to an intersection with a four way stop sign. At the exact same moment another person who was out for a joy ride in their Lotus Elise (we are still using our imagination right?) pulls up to the same intersection. You are both stopped and need to cross each others paths to continue.
Both cars arrived at the same time, how do you determine who goes through the intersection first? Even though there are technically rules that determine right of way, if you are like most people, you make eye contact with the Lotus driver and give them a little wave to indicate you are allowing them to go first. You admire their yellow Lotus as they pass by and give you a wave of thanks. You rev your engine, drop the clutch and carry on with your glorious day.
Now lets imagine this same scenario with some changes. As you pull up to the intersection in your Porsche 911 a fully autonomous car pulls up to the intersection at the exact same time. You must cross paths with the autonomous vehicle to continue on your journey.
You try to make eye contact with the autonomous vehicles driver, only to find that they are engrossed in a game of Minecraft on their Surface Tablet while also talking on their iPhone and ordering from amazon using their cars built in personal assistant.
You wave at the autonomous vehicle indicating that you want to allow it to go first, but autonomous vehicle software version 2.36 has not yet learned to understand your hand signals. Frustrated, you rev your engine and start to pull out from the stop sign.
At that same moment the autonomous vehicle starts to also pull out into the intersection. Sensing that you have started to move the autonomous vehicle pauses (Braking is such an analog term). You also hit the brakes of your 911 and so begins a delicate dance. You start to move, they start to move, you brake they pause.
26 tense minutes later you have made it through the intersection unscathed, but your joyous mood has been obliterated. As you drive away you look back and note that the rider of the autonomous vehicle is still on the phone, still playing Minecraft and has just finished confirming their Amazon order.
Obviously this example is exaggerated, but if you think about all of the ways in which drivers (of the human variety) communicate with each other you can start to sense the problem. In the distant future autonomous cars will communicate with each other directly electronically. In our pretend scenario if it had been two autonomous cars they might have politely tipped their digital hats to each other and one would have gone first.
In the short term there will be a communication problem between human drivers and autonomous drivers. Not everyone has the money to go out and buy a car that can drive itself. This means that for the foreseeable future many people will still be driving their dumb Toyota Camry's and Ford Escapes (Note dumb in this instance is used to describe the lack of autonomous abilities).
As more people start to ride in autonomous vehicles, those vehicles will need to be able to learn to read body language, human hand signals, eye contact etc. Otherwise confusion or even accidents could occur because a computer and a human are not speaking the same "language".
The recent accident between a Google autonomous Lexus RX450 and a bus is an example of this type of scenario. Google has stated, "This is a classic example of the negotiation that's a normal part of driving -- we're all trying to predict each other's movements". I agree with Google's sentiment, however, part of the prediction of movements that humans use is through other forms of communication such as non verbal signals. Even If the bus driver had given a hand wave or flashed it's headlights would the Google vehicle have understood that it had the right of way?
Until computers can understand human non-verbal communication methods, and until there is a method for autonomous cars to indicate what they are "Thinking" to non autonomous vehicle drivers the future will be full of awkward driving situations.
Maybe one day all vehicles will be autonomous, until then put away your hand signals, body language and eye contact and brush up on your 0's and 1's.