By Mike Pankonin, AEM Senior Director, Technical & Safety Services

Autonomous VehiclesIt’s the best of times, yet the most challenging of times for the equipment industry. While advanced technologies to meet customer needs are resulting in unprecedented changes to equipment unlike anything we’ve seen before, they are also moving forward – and being put into practice – at a rate that’s difficult to manage.

This past weekend, I experienced firsthand unintended consequences of relying on new technology. My vehicle has “adaptive cruise control,” a technology I have embraced and feel comfortable with using. It will maintain either my target speed, or the set distance between my vehicle and the one in front of me.

However, on two similar but different instances, the vehicle behaved in a manner that I did not expect, and either situation could have resulted in a potentially serious accident.

In one instance, a semi-tractor and trailer pulled immediately behind me while I had the cruise control engaged. Shortly thereafter, another vehicle pulled between me and the car in front of me. The adaptive cruise took control to maintain the distance to the car in front of me and caused my car to aggressively brake. The grill of the semi-truck filled my mirror! I could not tap the brake to get out of cruise, which would have been my normal reaction, for fear of becoming a new hood ornament. The grill then got even larger! I fumbled for the disengage switch. The grill filled my back window. Where is that lever? 

Fortunately, no impact ensued. After a few seconds of panic, we happily continued on our way, re-engaging the cruise control. (After all, I spent good money for it, and that must have been an anomaly.) Within just two or three hours, the second incident happened in almost an identical way. Both incidents took place in light traffic, and had the other vehicles been using similar technology, neither uncomfortable situation would likely have occurred.

I think back to the challenges of new technologies mixing with old. How many horses were uncontrollable at the sight of a buggy without a horse? What was the funny noise and smell?

Imagine the challenges as vehicles became much faster over time. When junior at the wheel rocketed around Great-Great-Grandpa at the reins. Oh, for the good old days. How many accidents happened as the old mixed with the new?

I want to emphasize that I fully believe autonomous equipment is in our future and has been successfully used for years. Like many of us, I love the convenience and predictability of my devices. However, mixing the old with the new, and in an uncontrolled environment, will result in unintended consequences (and potentially with tragic results).  

Recently, a pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona was struck and killed by an autonomous vehicle, even though it recognized her six seconds before impact. Unfortunately, automatic braking was somehow turned off. Intermixing fully autonomous cars with unpredictable humans is akin to mixing the horseless buggy with the horses, only at much faster speeds and greater mass.

I believe the solution resides in the off-road industry, where equipment operates in controlled and isolated job sites. Mining operations tend to be secure with only trained and authorized people entering the site. Mines have successfully operated autonomous equipment for years in controlled environments with limited human intervention minimizing human unpredictability. Perhaps some farm locations may be able to do likewise, however, we need to assure that the machine is isolated and that safety measures are in place to protect farmers and their family members as they approach the machines.

Having started my career in equipment testing, controlled test environments seem prudent for developing new technologies. After all, 4,090,000 miles of open U.S. roadway makes for an unpredictable and hazardous test laboratory.

Perhaps this was the mindset of the federal regulators as they required all onramps and offramps to exit and enter on the right side of our U.S. interstate system. The extra expense this caused the Milwaukee Zoo Interchange road construction project never made sense to me until I started thinking about fully autonomous equipment limited to the innermost or leftmost lane. Could we envision a time when those lanes are exclusively used for autonomous vehicles on interstate routes? It seems a much more controlled environment than the roads of suburbia. I look forward to the time when I can set my vehicle destination, lean back and read a book, or perhaps even sleep and awake when I arrive in Seattle!  I can see true benefit in dedicating the leftmost lane exclusively for fully autonomous vehicles.

At one time, I was concerned that this technology would be open to complex litigation. I remain intrigued by the challenge code-writers face as they develop algorithms to make the best from a group of all poor choices. These choices are now made by humans, in difficult situations, reacting instantly to minimize negative consequences. At a recent AEM Product Safety and Compliance Seminar, it was explained that many of these situations are easy to understand since all of the data is recorded and readily accessible to investigators. That seems to be the case in the Tempe pedestrian accident. They have evidence that even though the system saw and recognized the pedestrian, there was some flaw that caused the vehicle to “miss” the appropriate action or actions.

Once again, unintended consequences can be a challenge, especially when the development laboratory is as public as a U.S. roadway. Advances need to be made line upon line, precept upon precept, principal upon principle, all while in a safe and controlled test laboratory. Off-road mobile machinery may play an important role in that development.

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