Home » A Video Showing A Police Officer Yelling At An Autonomous Car Has Me Worried About Robocar Emergency Overrides

A Video Showing A Police Officer Yelling At An Autonomous Car Has Me Worried About Robocar Emergency Overrides

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On June 10, there was another miserable mass shooting, this time in San Francisco’s Mission District. Nine people were injured in the attack, but thankfully none were killed, though one victim is in critical condition, per news site Mission Local. What made this mass shooting different than the sadly multiple others that have happened recently is that in this one, there was another element that made the situation a bit more complex: autonomous vehicles. San Francisco’s Mission District is one of the few locations in America currently acting as a testbed for fully-automated/Level 4 vehicles, in this case Cruise robotaxis. During the chaos and fear that comes with a mass shooting, one of those Cruise robotaxis that happened to be at the scene ended up in the vicinity of police and other emergency responders. Some reports suggested that the Cruise robotaxi was in the way of emergency vehicles, though Cruise and the San Francisco Police Department refute this. However we interpret the events, this should be a warning that AV companies need to build in systems to prevent this sort of thing from happening, period.

The main reason that it has been suggested that a Cruise automated vehicle was in the way of first responders is because of this video of a frustrated police officer appearing to yell at the confused robocar:

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In the first video, you can hear a cop yell:

“It’s blocking emergency, medical, and fire! I’ve got to get it out of here now!”

From the tone in his voice, the officer appears angry and frustrated by the car, which has stopped right in the middle of the street. It’s very hard to see how this is anything but an example of an AV in the way, though, again, Cruise and the SFPD say emergency vehicles could still get by. That said, this video must exist for some reason, and at that moment it’s possible that to that one cop’s perspective, the car’s location was an issue, at least as they interpreted the situation.

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Eventually, the car made a U-turn and pulled over. Cruise released a statement about the car and its behavior during the event:

 

While Cruise says

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“Throughout this time, all vehicles, including emergency response vehicles, were able to proceed around our car.”

…that’s sure not what it seems like is going on in that first video, at least in the opinion of that one cop who was yelling by the car. But, again, SFPD corroborates Cruise, saying the cars were never blocking emergency vehicle access. And while Cruise states that they are

“thankful to all our first responders for helping to keep us safe during situations like this and are committed to working collaboratively with them,”

That level of collaboration needs to be increased, and, ideally standardized for all AV makers in the future.

I reached out to Cruise, who responded:

Thanks for reaching out. As you can see from this recent story from NBC, SF officials have said on record that we did not block emergency vehicles during the incident – which is reflective of the statements we put out on twitter.

So, despite what it sounds like the cop is yelling about in that video, Cruise denies that they did not block any emergency vehicles. And, since the car did later move out of the way, this is true. But, that doesn’t mean this is a problem that doesn’t need to be addressed; even if emergency vehicles were “able to proceed around” the car, the car is still stopped there. And in this particular case, it didn’t hinder things significantly, which is great, but it’s also a harbinger.

It’s not like this hasn’t already happened during other incidents; for example, on June 7, a Waymo automated vehicle was blocking a San Francisco Fire Department vehicle, preventing it from responding to a medical call:

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Sffd Doc

In the document above it’s noted that this was the second incident of the week, and it took eight minutes to get the car put into manual mode so it could be moved out of the way. Eight minutes is a hell of a long time in a medical emergency situation. If you’re wondering what the process is and why it took so long, Waymo can actually tell you themselves:

Even in Waymo’s own training video, this all seems like far too slow and involved a process, especially when in an emergency/time critical situation. If there’s a fire or people injured or an active shooter and the car is in the way, is it really realistic to expect to get a representative on the phone to talk you through pushing several fussy little buttons? Plus, relying on the car’s network to be functional, or the cell network functional is a bad idea because we’re talking about emergency situations here, and emergencies are precisely when things like cell networks can be compromised.

This isn’t a huge issue at this very moment because there aren’t all that many robotaxis around yet (at least compared to the number of human-driven cars), and their theater of operations is limited. But, eventually, there will be more of these, operating in more places, and this type of situation will occur again. Really, it’s not even the first time the robotaxis have caused traffic blockages when things go wrong. In March, a number of Cruise robotaxis got caught up in downed wires from fallen trees:

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There’s a lot more of these sorts of incidents. They range from simple, unplanned AV stops that just block traffic, annoyingly, recorded on this map for the period of May to December 2022:

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… to much more serious incidents, such as

…San Francisco informed the Commission of an incident on April 5, 2022 when a Cruise AV stopped in a travel lane created an obstruction for a San Francisco Fire Department vehicle on its way to a 3 alarm fire.

and

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On June 12, 2022, a Cruise AV ran over a fire hose that was in use at an active fire scene. Section 21708 of the California Vehicle Code provides that “No person shall drive or propel any vehicle or conveyance upon, over, or across, or in any manner damage any fire hose or chemical hose used by or under the supervision and control of any organized fire department . . . . “ Driving over a fire hose that is in use can seriously injure firefighters.

A solution should be figured out now, before it’s a really huge deal, instead of waiting for it to become a huge problem. Essentially, what is needed is some manner of emergency override that is available to all public safety organizations, an override that at the very, very least puts the car in neutral and releases all control and braking so it can be pushed out of the way. That’s the minimum. And this override should not be reliant on any networks or communication infrastructure that could be compromised in an emergency. These should be physical override controls, accessible to first responders. Sure, installing something like that can introduce security concerns for the owners of the robotaxis, but you know what? I don’t really care. They can figure out their security after they make certain that if a robotaxi is blocking a fire truck or ambulance, it can be moved out of the way, immediately, without waiting for contact with the operating company.

AVs should be able to know when they are in an area with emergency activity, and there needs to be agreed-upon practices for what the cars should do in those situations. First, they should get the hell out of the way – technically, that’s what cars from Waymo and Cruise are programmed to do now.

If they’re unable to get out of the way, they need to be able to be controlled by first responders on site or by remote operators either at municipal agencies or from the company who owns and operates the AVs. The technology to accomplish all of this is already in place. If time is more constrained then they just need to be able to be placed into neutral, with access to steering, so they can be physically pushed out of the way.

We can’t just rely on the owner/operator companies to handle this, because doing so involves logistical and communication delays that could put lives in jeopardy. Plus, it doesn’t make sense to give control of the AVs to an organization that may view the cars as a personal asset, and thereby create a conflict of interest if the AV may end up damaged or worse while being moved.

Ideally, we would have comprehensive and standardized laws and plans for how AVs should act in emergencies, and all AV makers would be required to implement these standards before allowed to test on public roads. There’s even potential for AVs to do a lot more for the benefit of public safety in the future, if we so choose. In my book about automated cars, Robot Take the Wheel, I let myself do a lot of speculating about what this sort of cooperation between AVs and public safety could look like in the future:

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Let’s say we’re at a point where robotic vehicles are developed enough to be on the market, and that 20 to 25 percent of cars on the road are autonomous. These robotic vehicles are constantly connected to one another and the internet, as expected, and when they’re parked, idle, or otherwise empty and unused, they can let local law enforcement and emergency services know, along with important details like their location and effective fuel/battery range.

Okay. Now, let’s imagine something really terrible happens, like some deranged terrorist rents a box truck and is heading to a crowded part of town with the intention of plowing into a bunch of people, much like we’ve unfortunately seen many times before, like in April 2018 when a terrorist named Alek Minassian for the idiotic reason of not being able to get laid drove a rented van into a crowd, killing ten people.

These types of vehicular attacks can be brutal and alarmingly effective. But what if the attack could be stopped or curtailed by the use of robotic vehicles in the area? In this situation, it could be possible for law enforcement agencies to effectively commandeer nearby robotic vehicles and send them to help. They could help by parking between people and the threat, acting as barriers against vehicular attacks or even providing cover in cases of attackers armed with firearms or other weapons. Robotic vehicles could be used to attempt to ram a weaponized vehicle or force it off the road, and to block it to prevent the driver from using it to cause more harm.

Sure, that may be a bit extreme, demanding selfless heroism from AVs, but there’s no reason we can’t, as a society, demand that AVs just don’t get in the way. This doesn’t have to be complicated; there could even be a physical override button, perhaps secured with a physical key that fire and police and other emergency services have copies of. In some ways, the dumber the better, because in an emergency, you don’t want to have to be sure a given AV has a proper connection to some server somewhere or has proper authorization or whatever; you want it out of the way, now.

I don’t think this should even be negotiable. It’s time to start figuring out the best way for AVs to cause no harm during emergencies. This should be happening right now, before something like this happens again, because we all know too damn well it will.

UPDATE: After publication, Cruise emailed me in response to questions I had about their policies and plans for emergency services interactions:

Please see the following information below that should help answer those questions. And as the NBC story that I linked over in my original email shows, not everything that has been publicly reported is accurate – so please keep that in mind.
  • Our AVs are designed to recognize emergency vehicle sirens and lights and yield to them while following traffic rules (i.e., pulling over).

  • Live operational support is a key part of our overall approach to safety, and helps provide a swift response to on-road events. When the AV initiates Remote Assistance, an agent will immediately be available to assist and help resolve situations as quickly as possible.

  • In a situation where the AV approaches an emergency scene, remote assistance is triggered and will initiate a voice call through the AV’s system in order to communicate  with the emergency responder. When appropriate, we show the critical response line phone number on our front tablets.

  • We strive to resolve all incidents, including those involving emergency vehicles as fast as possible, regardless of the circumstances.

  • We worked in partnership with the California first responders to create a training video on how to interact with our AVs based on feedback received from law enforcement and firefighters. We have a dedicated page available for emergency responders to reference, which includes our dedicated 24/7 critical response line for first responders and link to our law enforcement interaction plan.

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BigThingsComin
BigThingsComin
11 months ago

We should be able to slap an AV on the ass like a horse to get it to move forward a bit.

ScottyB
ScottyB
11 months ago

Puzzling why SFPD has agreed to this narrative (political pressure from above as in Crui$e donations/fees/whatever?), but considering a fire engine is nearly as capable as your average locomotive, why didn’t they just pull or push it out of the way. That’s my vote for SOP.

Erik Hancock
Erik Hancock
11 months ago

On the one hand, a lot of the documented Cruise and Waymo incidents add up to a general traffic menace. On the other, this particular incident doesn’t seem to be at the same level. In fact, human drivers mess up these interactions with emergency services all the time – because it is often confusing and chaotic. Also, from personal experience, it seems like the officer chosen for traffic management is selected based on who has the shortest fuse. If you don’t respond instantaneously with your 3,000 lb vehicle, they treat it like insubordination when you’re just trying to understand the instruction and move in a safe manner. The testing of Autonomous Vehicles on public roads has raised so many questions about safety, responsibility, and even the very viability of the concept. I’m not defending it, just saying that not every single event is newsworthy. This dumpster fire is raging along just fine without throwing every fuel source on it.

Yes I Drive A 240
Yes I Drive A 240
11 months ago

I was actually in the Mission District on the 10th when this all went down. While I didn’t see or hear the shooting, I saw all the emergency vehicles rushing to the scene.

These Cruze’s are all over the city and they struggle to make sense of people crossing the street or riding bikes, I can’t imagine it’s smart enough to get out of the way of emergency vehicles. I know I almost got nailed by one crossing a crosswalk before it abruptly stopped in the middle of the road.

They need an emergency services override code.

Opa Carriker
Opa Carriker
11 months ago

Unfreaking real. A 15 min. video explaing how a normal person can interact with a robocar with the help of another remote party to move a damned car. That dog won’t hunt!

Trust Doesn't Rust
Trust Doesn't Rust
11 months ago

If only there was a giant pickup with a red-eyed skull, Confederate flag and unused ball-hitch nearby to tow this AV away.

Eva
Eva
11 months ago

The cops should start ticketing these things like they do actual humans. Looks like at least failure to yield to emergency vehicles to me. sure it did eventually get out of the way but I wonder what would happen if it took a human 8 minutes to do that.

Chronometric
Chronometric
11 months ago

The city of SF should give all the homeless a prepaid cellphone with the Waymo app. Then let them summon taxis to drive around while they get some safe warm sleep. Way cheaper than housing.

Taco Shackleford
Taco Shackleford
11 months ago

I have a short term solution for current AVs, but don’t know if it would be a long term solution. Use a MIRT system in all AVs, when they get hit with the infrared signal the vehicle starts a pull over/get out of the way procedure to not be a nuisance. Most police/fire/EMS have MIRT systems – at least where AVs are currently testing.

Bongo Friendee Harvey Park
Bongo Friendee Harvey Park
11 months ago

Procedures are good. Hopefully the industry is developing / has developed standards so first responders only have to know one procedure. Some kind of ANSI or better ISO spec.

Paul B
Paul B
11 months ago

The Montreal Fire Department already has a procedure for this:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2bqkDjVyu80

Geekycop .
Geekycop .
11 months ago
Reply to  Paul B

Nicely done. I did the same thing to a road rager that was blocking the fire station in my home town when I had the old bumper gaurds on my buick as a kid. She wasnt happy that the back of her hond caved in but the firefighters were.

MrBeachbum
MrBeachbum
11 months ago

I know it’s rare, but there are situations in which a police officer must still direct traffic in an intersection. I had always assumed this kind of training was built-in for any AV but apparently not?

Phantom Pedal Syndrome
Phantom Pedal Syndrome
11 months ago

I heard one of these stories on the old FM a couple days ago, figured I’d see coverage of this issue here. In the clip they played the policeman was talking to the AV like a dog “no”, “stay” and apparently had to put a cone in front of it to stop it.
Funny at first but definitely a serious concern.
Would be cool if they could allow an override that will make the car listen to simple voice commands. Stop, reverse, park etc. Like a good boy.

Bongo Friendee Harvey Park
Bongo Friendee Harvey Park
11 months ago

The new electric Ford Explorer also knows “roll over.”

Last edited 11 months ago by Bongo Friendee Harvey Park
Baron Usurper
Baron Usurper
11 months ago

COTD

Chronometric
Chronometric
11 months ago

That comment was Fire. But Stone cold.

IRegertNothing, Esq.
IRegertNothing, Esq.
11 months ago
Reply to  Chronometric

Tread lightly with these puns.

OpposedPiston
OpposedPiston
11 months ago

I agree, wouldn’t want to have a blowout in our relationship with manufacturers.

Bongo Friendee Harvey Park
Bongo Friendee Harvey Park
11 months ago
Reply to  OpposedPiston

With all this negative press, it’s already on the skids.

Phantom Pedal Syndrome
Phantom Pedal Syndrome
11 months ago

Alley-Oop

Cheap Bastard
Cheap Bastard
11 months ago

The obvious solution is to require all AVs to be part of the traffic signal preemption system:

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Traffic_signal_preemption

IIRC traffic lights can be triggered to go green from the approaching emergency vehicle lights. Have the same sensor on AVs trigger them to seek safety.

Better yet imbed different signals in the flashing lights to tell the AV exactly what to do: Turn on the flashers, make a hole, leave the area or find a place to park.

Taco Shackleford
Taco Shackleford
11 months ago
Reply to  Cheap Bastard

Yes the MIRT system is the way to go currently, but may not be a long term solution for AVs when there are significantly more

Hoonicus
Hoonicus
11 months ago

Note to all AV, FSD, assisted driving proponents; The public roadways are not your playground! You’re not ready! Back to DARPA with ya! If you graduate from there, you then need your own figure 8 track for usable lifetime battery expectancy.

Ranwhenparked
Ranwhenparked
11 months ago

Police cars have push bars don’t they? If its really blocking things, smash the window, put it in neutral, and push it out of there, and if the police car gets a scratch, just send the bill to Cruise.

Bongo Friendee Harvey Park
Bongo Friendee Harvey Park
11 months ago
Reply to  Ranwhenparked

The way things are going in America’s police departments, they’ll soon have turrets

Geekycop .
Geekycop .
11 months ago
Reply to  Ranwhenparked

Not all of them do. My department refuses to let us have anything that “looks scary” so most of our cars dont even have the divider for the back seat for when we’re transporting someone we’ve just arrested. As a side note it’s the parole division that I work in, so I don’t get to deal with Joe Public, only violent felons sex offenders gang members and drug dealers.

Robert Benson
Robert Benson
11 months ago

People keep assuming autonomous vehicles being universal is simply a matter of projects like Wayne needing enough time to develop and perfect.

But my understanding is that the limited area where Waymo operates has been mapped out by LiDAR in advance in detail.

To me it seems like this is something not possible at scale.

So I don’t see how these projects are anything more then a publicity stunt and people are getting their hopes up this is coming within our lifetimes.

I feel for true level 5 we need technologies that we have yet to even think of.

Bongo Friendee Harvey Park
Bongo Friendee Harvey Park
11 months ago
Reply to  Robert Benson

> it seems like this is something not possible at scale.

It is, but it’s expensive and time consuming. It took google a long time to collect street view data.

TriangleRAD
TriangleRAD
11 months ago

It’s not just the collecting of data, it’s the maintaining. Traffic patterns, hazards, etc. are constantly changing, and an AV using outdated data could cause major problems.

Google Street View still shows my car in the driveway of a house I moved out of in 2013.

Phuzz
Phuzz
11 months ago
Reply to  Robert Benson

So I don’t see how these projects are anything more then a publicity stunt

It’s a publicity stunt that they can use to get more funding. As Uber, or Reddit, or Twitter, have already shown, a business doesn’t need to be viable or profitable, if it can keep attracting outside investment.

James Kohler
James Kohler
11 months ago

Boy Crusie’s response to you is weak sauce and unacceptable. The vehicle clearly didn’t do bullet point one of their response (at least not until it caused one Policeman to lose his cool) and their second bullet point is an admission that yes, these vehicles do depend on a network, and if it is compromised, there will be chaos.

A. Barth
A. Barth
11 months ago

There seems to be a focus on the tech to get the AV out of the way.

If the AV is stopped in a bad spot, any vehicle from an ambulance on up should be physically able (and authorized) to push it out of the way, bumper-to-bumper or bumper-to-whatever. The analog approach is likely the most expeditious and effective. Get the passenger out first, if there is one. If the AV is damaged, take it up with the operator’s insurance company: they left their stuff in the responders’ way.

(I am not joking about this, btw.)

Droid
Droid
11 months ago
Reply to  A. Barth

insurance industry and legal system are also behind.
never mind crumpled bumper – what happens when delay causes injury/death – what will premiums be?
who will bear criminal liability?

Mr Sarcastic
Mr Sarcastic
11 months ago

Hey given how the first response of robocars is to ram vehicles with emergency lights like a bull charging a red flag. And idiot humans are just as stupid in a dramatic situation we should all just blame SF for yet another stupid woke decision.

Scramblerken
Scramblerken
11 months ago
Reply to  Mr Sarcastic

Woke suggests well read and compassionate.
Ignorance prevails.

Chris with bad opinions
Chris with bad opinions
11 months ago
Reply to  Scramblerken

Ignorance is bad take dave’s default setting.

Bongo Friendee Harvey Park
Bongo Friendee Harvey Park
11 months ago
Reply to  Mr Sarcastic

Oh please. Wtf do robotaxis have to do with wokeness?

Last edited 11 months ago by Bongo Friendee Harvey Park
IRegertNothing, Esq.
IRegertNothing, Esq.
11 months ago

Me no like = WOKE!

Chris with bad opinions
Chris with bad opinions
11 months ago

Nothing, but bad take dave didn’t get in his “owning the libs” requirement for the day.

Chris with bad opinions
Chris with bad opinions
11 months ago
Reply to  Mr Sarcastic

Using the term woke immediately invalidates your opinion as useful. Of course my surprise level at bad take dave using it is about 0.

10001010
10001010
11 months ago

We reached out directly to the Cruise autonomous vehicle involved in this incident who provided the following statement:

“Please place the items in the bagging area.”

Ranwhenparked
Ranwhenparked
11 months ago
Reply to  10001010

Unexpected item in bagging area

RootWyrm
RootWyrm
11 months ago
Reply to  Ranwhenparked

Return item to the scanner.

Ranwhenparked
Ranwhenparked
11 months ago
Reply to  RootWyrm

Please wait for assistance

Bongo Friendee Harvey Park
Bongo Friendee Harvey Park
11 months ago
Reply to  Ranwhenparked

How many store-provided body bags did you need?

Bongo Friendee Harvey Park
Bongo Friendee Harvey Park
11 months ago
Reply to  10001010

COTD

Cyko9
Cyko9
11 months ago

Has there been an objective analysis of AVs that demonstrates their value beyond “really cool”? I realize this tech is still in the growing pains stage, but are AVs really that much better than human driven taxis? It’s like we’re introducing a solution where there isn’t much of a problem.

Usernametaken
Usernametaken
11 months ago
Reply to  Cyko9

Human operators keep demanding these things called ‘basic rights’. It’s really cramping Corporates style.

Sklooner
Sklooner
11 months ago

I just think of that scene from I think The Fifth Element where the robot taxi driver gets ripped out

Mr Sarcastic
Mr Sarcastic
11 months ago
Reply to  Sklooner

No i think that was total recall where Arnold rips the robot johnny cab driver out.

sentinelTk
sentinelTk
11 months ago

I have for years had this concept of driving being the single largest form of active mass communication in the human world. Not internet or text or phone…that is usually either not active (meaning the information is relayed immediately and does not wait until disseminated by reading or viewing) or is on a smaller scale (a large conversation usually only involves a handful of people).

Driving on the other hand involves up to hundreds of vehicles communicating in mass at the same time. Everything from the side of the road the vehicle is on, to the speed (or change in speed), to the lights and signals (both on the vehicle and on the road), to more subtle items like lane positioning or what vehicle you are driving (like a driver in a Dodge Charger or Challenger is more likely to do something dumb around me…sorry to any offended, but it is true). It is all telling a story to the vehicles around us. Just driving down the block to the grocery store will involve me sending the drivers around me dozens of communication points and receiving back dozens or even hundreds from the cars and infrastructure around me. Basically we are processing and sending out insane amounts of data that we largely ignore but in reality is in fact mass communication.

Which is to say….I have very little expectation for any autonomous vehicle company to get anywhere close to this level of data management anytime soon to be able to function in mass on our roads while making subjective decisions based on all the feedback (and more) noted above. You may be able to eat an elephant one bite at a time, but it is going to take ages.

SLM
SLM
11 months ago
Reply to  sentinelTk

Your comment about driving being communication makes me think about ants. The flow of hundreds of ants moving from place to place can be really similar to human traffic. Ants do this with not so complex algorithms but with a high level of communication.

Phantom Pedal Syndrome
Phantom Pedal Syndrome
11 months ago
Reply to  SLM

And trail pheromones which I guess is kind of what the roadway is for us.

SLM
SLM
11 months ago

Exactly, the pheromones could be seen as our roadways/roadsigns/emergency broadcasts. But it only works if each individual responds the same way to the same stimulus.

Phantom Pedal Syndrome
Phantom Pedal Syndrome
11 months ago
Reply to  SLM

When I think about it I’m genuinely impressed and surprised our roadways and drivers work together as well as they do. It should be complete chaos out there considering how humans in large groups outside of their cars act more like moths in a lampshade.

Last edited 11 months ago by Phantom Pedal Syndrome
sentinelTk
sentinelTk
11 months ago

And rusty Jeeps leave trails of David Tracy phermones…..

sentinelTk
sentinelTk
11 months ago
Reply to  SLM

Exactly….I always think of it likes schools of fish or flocks of birds. It looks so impossible to coordinate to us, then we go hop in a car and do very similar, albeit with additional infrastructure around us.

Bongo Friendee Harvey Park
Bongo Friendee Harvey Park
11 months ago
Reply to  sentinelTk

Not just communication, but willing cooperation that works almost all the time, even though most drivers would probably not like each other otherwise. Road rage and car crashes with 2+ vehicles make up a tiny % of miles driven.

OpposedPiston
OpposedPiston
11 months ago
Reply to  sentinelTk

You’re spot on with your observation. I was taught early to use vehicle positioning in a lane to communicate with other drivers. A very important lesson was to “claim my lane” when turning left on a two lane street to discourage people from attempting to pass on a narrow shoulder. If you hug the centerline in that spot, people will try the pass, realize how steep the slope is and overcorrect back. A few near misses and my instructor told me how to prevent it.

Similar lane positioning tells you when someone is considering squeezing into that 1.1 carlength gap, and you can communicate back with your vehicle position that the gap isn’t big enough. All that happens before the turn signals ever come on (assuming they do)

Just Jeepin’
Just Jeepin’
11 months ago
Reply to  sentinelTk

I’m annoyed we didn’t start having cars talk to each other years ago, even without any concept of autonomy. I’d love to know someone’s coming around a blind curve.

Icouldntfindaclevername
Icouldntfindaclevername
11 months ago

Do these autonomous vehicles have a microphone and speaker to communicate?
Kinda like yelling at your computer when you get a BSOD. Does no good

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