At CES 2017, Nissan unveiled a breakthrough technology based on NASA know-how — and it could leapfrog the roadblock to autonomous vehicles (AVs) brought about by the need to integrate self-driving cars into traffic shared with human-driven cars.
There are so many hurdles slowing the introduction of fully autonomous vehicles onto our roads that designating one as the main stumbling block is almost impossible. As the industry works its way through the process of developing autonomous technologies and creating the appropriate infrastructure required for retail AVs to finally occupy our highways, we may have yet to encounter what will be the most difficult issue to overcome.
In the meantime, though, experts agree that AVs seamlessly sharing roadways with human-controlled vehicles will be a major problem. At some point, however, they’ll have to do just that as we phase out human-controlled vehicles in favor of AVs — a process that may take decades.
At this year’s annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES 2017), several carmakers and technology partners each rolled out their next big thing in autonomous technology. Among Nissan’s announcements was Seamless Autonomous Mobility (SAM). It’s a technology that introduces a human element into autonomous technology, and it may just be the answer to the AV-to-human communication issue.
Although most of us do it every day without giving it much thought, proceeding through a 4-way stop involves some driver-to-driver communication, as well as a degree of decision-making. Determining who goes through the intersection next often requires eye contact, hand signals and judgment. Currently autonomous technology lacks all of those elements. And 4-way-stop intersections are just one of hundreds of similar situations requiring some degree of communication. Merging onto expressways, yielding the right of way, obeying a police officer’s traffic directions and many other daily situations demand communication and decision-making.
Technology developers have been searching for answers to the problem of non-verbal communication with software. So far, no one has discovered a software-only solution. Nissan, however, found a way to bridge the human-to-AV communication issue with, well, a human.
Based on NASA’s Visual Environment for Remote Virtual Exploration (VERVE) software, used to visualize and supervise interplanetary robots, SAM relies on artificial intelligence (AI) to determine when a situation is beyond its autonomous capabilities. Then, the system reaches out to a human, whom Nissan calls a Mobility Manager, to use the AV’s cameras to assess the situation. The Mobility Manager instructs the AV on how to proceed and releases it. As this is happening, surrounding AVs are also receiving and processing the data to overcome the obstacle without calling on a Mobility Manager.
For the CES 2017 demonstration, SAM linked up to the NASA Ames Research Center, where a Mobility Manager used a wireless connection to evaluate a road-construction scenario and direct the AV through it. As an AV’s AI matures, human intervention will be less and less necessary, allowing one Mobility Manager to oversee more and more AVs.
What it means to you: Perhaps using a human to supplement autonomous technology seems like a step back, but it may prove a legitimate way to leapfrog the AV-to-human communication roadblock. The key is the sophistication of the AV’s AI and its ability to learn as it goes. The fix may not be pretty, but it is effective — and it may just hasten fully self-driving cars getting into the hands of consumers.