Will Pedestrians be able to make driverless cars crash to avoid them?

I seem recently to have been reading about systems that can be exploited easily.

  1. A big one is the police. An increasingly common problem for US police is something called Swatting.

I’d not heard of swatting until a few weeks ago, when I read this most incredible article about an online troll who took his trolling to the real world.

He finds out the address of a young woman, then calls the police pretending to have taken hostages at that location.

The police arrive in a hurry, with a SWAT team (hence ‘swatting’). Doors get kicked in. The intent, the troll claims, is to frighten. But sometimes, innocent people die.

Swatting shares some similarities with framing another person for crime, but the difference is the police force does little to no checking before it reacts.

2. Pizza delivery is the same technique at the other end of the seriousness spectrum. The pizza delivery location doesn’t check the address you give them either.

The seriousness comes when you find a powerful system that is forced (or chooses) to reacts very quickly without doing much checking.

3. National governments responding to terrorist attacks are perhaps another example. In the aftermath of the recent terror attacks, dust had barely settled on Paris when French jets took off over Syria, bombing… things.

The attackers wanted that and got it.

Lesson is – we should be careful when we design powerful systems that have to respond quickly, without doing much checking.

4. This makes me think of driverless cars. These will be programmed to react quickly. They’ll (sometimes) be going fast, meaning their reactions could be powerful.

Driverless cars will avoid pedestrians. It is possible they will be extremely good at doing so.

But the more reliable they are at dodging loose humans, the easier the system will be to exploit. I can imagine a future where you can step off the kerb without even looking and be sure the cars will avoid you.

Sounds nice, right? It would be a relief. But I can think of two risks.

The low-level risk is pedestrians frequently step out and cars frequently screech to a halt, traffic gets worse, and eventually the two systems are segregated and pedestrians lose a lot of access.

The bigger risk is when the cars are travelling a bit faster, but a pedestrian can still trust them to react predictably.

If they knew cars would always swerve once they were inside a certain distance, a prankster who knew the right moment to step onto the road could cause five crashes on the way to work.

Much has been written about how driverless cars will have to choose between the lives of their passengers or other potential victims.  If they have a single best strategy they always follow in answering that question, they have a weakness.

There could be ways of behaving on or near the road that reliably make cars swerve into each other or off the road.

One solution I can think of is very low speed limits. Another is programming a random element into the systems so they don’t always react the same way. If they sometimes go left and sometimes go right, the system will be a little harder to predict and a lot less tempting to exploit.

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Thomas the Think Engine is the blog of a trained economist. It comes to you from Melbourne Australia.

8 thoughts on “Will Pedestrians be able to make driverless cars crash to avoid them?”

  1. Given sufficient perversely adventurous people, I can see this developing as a kind of extreme sport, like the running of the bulls in Pamplona.

    Of course, Google’s autonomous cars don’t look anywhere near as threatening as a Spanish bull – more like giant ladybirds, in fact – but I suppose you can’t have everything.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Love your work, can you please write an article about the topic of Universal Basic Income that I read about recently on news.com.au?


  3. An interesting article, but you are over-thinking the situation. Driverless cars will still quite likely have passengers in them who will witness the act and the cars will have cameras that record what’s around them so it will be easy to catch the offenders – not much different to someone trying this with a regular car – although the reaction-ablility would be less predictable.
    The scenario you imagine would only be viable if there was almost no other humans around – only a swarm of people-less driverless vehicles. It’s possible, but not likely.
    Driverless cars still have a few significant technical hurdles which may never be cleared in the near term – I can confidently predict this because so many “just-around-the-corner” technology fails to materialise or doesn’t work exactly as imagined.


  4. The situation is more subtle. Road rules are broken by drivers as a matter of course, particularly those rules that give right of way to pedestrians and people on bikes. Driverless cars will presumably be sticklers for the rules, allowing pedestrians and people on bikes to assert their full rights to the road. As somebody who rides a bike everyday as my default mode of transport, I look forward to this.

    I think you are correct to predict that this will create demand for greater separation of transport modes. In urban areas this may mean that cars will face greater restrictions, but in suburban and rural areas life may get a lot more restrictive for pedestrians and people on bikes.


  5. A. If all you want to do is make cars crash, you can do that with human drivers already.
    B. A Self-Driving Car has multiple cameras. Enjoy your jail time, Prankster.


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