It’s become accepted fact that in the not-too-distant future you’ll be able to sit back and read your newspaper while your self-driving car whisks you to your destination.
Several firms, including Mercedes-Benz, Volvo, Renault-Nissan and Google, are working on autonomous cars that will soon be able to navigate their way through complex traffic without any driver intervention. But with the impending dawn of robot cars comes the interesting quandry of how we’ll communicate with them.
For people sitting inside the car, voice instructions such as “drive me to work” seem straightforward enough. But the trick, researchers say, is to figure out how robot cars will interact with people on the outside.
For instance, will you be able to hail a self-driving taxi by waving or whistling at it as one currently does with a human-driven version?
Can an autonomous car “wave” a pedestrian over the road? Is the car “speaking” to you or to the person next to you? And exactly what form will this communication take? Will we have to learn robot grammar or must the car be able to understand us?
It sounds very much like a scene from a Herbie movie (about a self-driving VW Beetle with a mind of its own). But there’s not a hint of Hollywood in the discussions by automotive engineers, robotics experts and linguists at the second Mercedes-Benz Future Talk workshop, entitled “How will we communicate with autonomous cars in the future?”.
“The traffic of the future will become increasingly interactive – and I don’t just mean the networking of vehicles,” stated Prof Herbert Kohler, Head of Group Research and Sustainability and Chief Environmental Officer at Daimler AG.
“We view it as our elementary task to put autonomous cars on the road not just as technological achievements but also to make them an integral part of the traffic of the future. Here the social aspects are at least equally important as the sensors in the car.”
Alexander Mankowsky, a futurologist at Daimler AG, believes one or more communication languages, including a robot-language dictionary, will be essential to allow interaction between humans and machines in the dense urban environment.
Prof Ellen Fricke from the Chemnitz Technical University advocates gestures as a communicating tool, but given that gestures often have different meanings across countries and cultures it raises some challenges.
It may seem like we’re getting ahead of ourselves over-preparing for something still in the realms of science fiction.
But Mercedes believes that what seems a long way off can quickly become a reality, and that it’s essential to develop a shared interaction language to enable functioning social “human-machine cooperation” in the traffic of the future.
Looking even further ahead, it may one day become prudent to programme ever-cleverer cars with the Three Laws of Robotics coined by science fiction author Isaac Asimov.
1. A robot may not harm a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
2. A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.