By Lance Eliot
California has been rocking and rolling, doing so to the tune of several recent earthquakes and aftershocks. That shaking feeling has also been felt in numerous nearby states, along with finding its way south of the border into Mexico.
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Fortunately, this round of earth movements has not led to massive destruction and perhaps serves somewhat helpfully as a wake-up call for earthquake preparedness efforts for when the big one actually hits.
One aspect that many people don’t consider involves the roadway disruption that an earthquake can potentially produce.
Sure, we all tend to think about our homes swaying and the dangers of household objects falling upon us, or maybe you might be imagining how stores could dump over their racks of groceries and goods, but do you ponder the adverse impact to the streets and highways.
Consider Earthquake Impacts To Our Roads
As soon as an earthquake has made itself known, you might be surprised to know that phalanxes of inspectors and others trained to examine roadway cracks and gaps are on-the-go, fanning out to check the transportation infrastructure (this is standard operating procedure in cities that are earthquake-savvy).
The assessments are especially focused on bridges, overpasses, and other similar structures that could be expected to falter or fail when the earth provides a sharp jolt of energy.
Meanwhile, people that have cars are frequently desirous of using their cars fairly soon after an earthquake occurs.
People often react to an earthquake by worrying about loved ones that might be a distance away and so will jump into their cars to race over to be with a relative or close friend. Or, sometimes the destruction where you are is so overwhelming that you opt to drive out of the damaged area to find a locale that was untouched or at least still fully operating.
The thing is that if you want to use your car after an earthquake has happened, you don’t know for sure that you can drive to wherever you might want to go.
The roads could be unpassable, or dangerous to drive on.
Even recently here in California a small town was pretty much cut-off from outsiders due to a lone stretch of highway that fed into the town and due to earthquake damage became nearly impossible to drive on.
This raises an interesting question, namely, what would self-driving driverless cars do if they were faced with driving in an area that was experiencing an earthquake?
Let’s unpack that question.
Dealing With Earthquakes And Driving
There are two major elements to consider with regard to driving and earthquakes, consisting of what happens when driving during an earthquake and trying to drive after an earthquake has subsided.
In my own personal experience, I’ve been driving my car during earthquakes and also shortly after an earthquake has completed.
Luckily, my active earthquake driving was generally undetectable in the driver’s seat, being so mild in impacting the motion of the car that I tended not to even realize an earthquake was taking place (it was when the radio announcer began to exclaim that an earthquake was underway that I realized something was afoot).
Unless you are really close to the main shoving action of the earthquake, your car is probably not going to be pushed around per se by the shaking earth.
Usually, you’ll see nearby billboards or signposts that seem to be swaying back-and-forth, or you might see an overpass shimmering a bit as you go underneath it.
The roadway itself is bound to be the most pronounced indicator of the earthquake taking place.
Cracks can suddenly appear and gaps in the road might loom as though some unseen force has opted to make use of a hole punch. You can also likely see debris that is falling from any high rising structures adjacent to the roadway. If there are trees overhanging to the street that you are on, the tree limbs and branches can begin plopping onto the asphalt in front of your car.
Of course, the impact that you’ll witness is dependent upon the severity of the earthquake, including how far away the earthquake epicenter was. If you are quite close to the main burst of earth moving action, the odds of heightened damages and dangers go up. Power lines could fall onto the roadway, and entire building structures could completely fall and land on cars or block the paths of cars.
Often times the reactions of the other drivers are more worrisome than the effects of the earthquake itself.
Drivers can suddenly start swerving their cars, perhaps jamming unexpectedly on their brakes. Some drivers go into a pure panic mode. They aren’t sure whether they should keep going, or come to an immediate halt, or pull over to the side of the road, and tend to lose their minds about watching for other traffic. It’s possible to become so transfixed with trying to avoid those newly formed cracks and debris that drivers fail to consider the other cars that are on the roadway with them.
It becomes a dog-eat-dog driving world. I’ll drive to save myself, each driver thinks, and those other drivers ought to be doing the same.
Suppose a self-driving driverless car was on the roadway during an earthquake.
In theory, a driverless car that was already able to drive on everyday streets would presumably have capabilities to detect aspects such as cracks in the road, debris on the roadway, and so on. As such, you could likely expect that the autonomous car would be able to cope with the appearance of these traffic hazards.
Furthermore, the antics of the other drivers would also be something that the driverless car should be able to contend with. As you know, human drivers can perform all sorts of oddball maneuvers at any time, and so the driverless car is hopefully ready for how the earthquake frantic human drivers might be reacting.
Would the driverless car realize that an earthquake was underway?
I’d say that the emerging crop of autonomous cars would be utterly clueless that an earthquake is taking place.
Driverless Cars Not Earthquake Aware
Unlike a human driver, these driverless cars have no commonsense reasoning and are lacking in any intelligent behavior.
The self-driving AI systems would be merely reacting to whatever occurs around or nearby to the driverless car, as detected via the sensors such as onboard cameras, radar, ultrasonic, LIDAR, and so on.
Don’t expect the AI to have any idea that an earthquake is the underlying cause for the sudden appearance of roadway blockages and the driver antics that might be occurring. Instead, the AI would be simply reacting to whatever happens to appear as it so appears.
At some juncture, the AI might decide that there is so much untoward activity on the road that the driverless car should pull over to the side of the roadway. If you were a passenger inside such a driverless car, I’m sure you would be yelling at the AI to take proper evasive action and perhaps be pleading with it to pull over, though depending upon how good the Natural Language Processing (NLP) might be, the AI might ignore your pleas and have no realization of what you are requesting.
Some are expecting that the early versions of driverless cars will have an OnStar-like capability to allow you as a passenger to seek out the assistance of a human remote operator. Assuming that the electronic communications is still functioning during the quake, you could potentially get a human agent on the horn and ask them to get the AI to pullover.
Many AI developers would argue that an earthquake is a pretty rare event and thus having to code the driverless car to specifically deal with a quake is not worthwhile at this time. Driverless car earthquake preparedness would be considered an edge or corner case. At some point in the future, once the core capabilities of autonomous cars have been dealt with, those edge or corner cases would then be taken into account.
Anyone stuck inside a driverless car during an earthquake might not be so sympathetic that postponing the earthquake handling capability was a futuristic edge case of lesser importance.
Add to this notion that if the driverless car had only children in it, and no adult present, the situation could be rather problematic.
After an earthquake has taken its toll, the act of driving has a multitude of facets to be considered.
There is the chance that online maps would be updated with the status of roadways such that a driverless car would be informed about what places are still passable and which ones should be avoided. As such, the AI routing would presumably attempt to drive only where it is safest to do so. Seems like a good thing.
One question will be whether you as a human passenger in a driverless car can override what the AI wants to do.
Suppose that your elderly father is at home and his neighborhood was struck hard by the earthquake. Assume that roadway inspectors have declared that no one should be using the roads in that neighborhood.
The AI system has picked-up the “don’t drive there” status and therefore refuses to drive in that area.
Meanwhile, you are willing to take a chance to drive there, hoping to reach your father, though the driverless car won’t proceed and there aren’t any driving controls for you to use to commandeer the self-driving car.
Should you be able to insist to the AI that it must drive you in an area that otherwise has been declared as verboten to drive in?
The same can be said for first responders that might be trying to reach areas to provide food supplies or render medical aid. Again, keep in mind that the AI has no commonsense reasoning and therefore won’t be able to somehow discuss the matter.
If a driverless car does cart you around after an earthquake, one potential advantage it might have over human drivers and conventional cars is the ability to communicate via V2V (vehicle-to-vehicle) electronic communications. Other driverless cars can be sharing roadway status in real-time with each other, letting others nearby know that a crack can be avoided by taking a different route or alerting other autonomous cars to avoid a pole that’s fallen onto the roadway.
It is also anticipated that we’ll have V2I (vehicle-to-infrastructure) electronic communications, allowing the roads and transportation infrastructure to directly provide status to driverless cars. A bridge might be able to send a message to a nearing autonomous car to warn about which lanes are safe and which ones are not. Edge computing devices along a stretch of highway can be conveying to a stream of driverless cars the most up-to-date indications about the road status.
For those of you that don’t live in an earthquake-prone area, you might be tempted to consider the driverless car and earthquakes issues as inapplicable to you.
I’d suggest you perhaps reconsider the matter by contemplating what other kinds of natural disasters might be prevalent in your part of the country.
Whatever you might have, you can recast my earlier points about earthquakes into the realm of your own local kinds of natural disasters.
Driverless cars are going to initially be as clueless about earthquake-related driving as they will be about hurricane driving (both during one and post-damage), tornado driving, etc. In that case, we are all going to be in the same boat, as it were, having to deal with an AI system that won’t comprehend the impacts of a natural disaster. That could be disastrous in some cases.