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Here’s How Blind Curves Could Stir Up Knuckle-Gripping Jitters About AI Self-Driving Cars

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Think about the last time that you found yourself driving a particularly treacherous blind curve.

Pretty darned scary, I’d bet.

Indeed, I realize that even the mere act of thinking about such an alarming encounter can be traumatic, so no need to reflectively linger on that reenactment in your mind. Go ahead and change your thought patterns to something less stressful such as mulling over the latest online cat videos or perhaps that delicious scoop of ice cream you recently consumed.

Meanwhile, let’s have a heart-to-heart serious talk about blind curves.

When first learning to drive, few newbies are specifically instructed about blind curves. Sure, there might be discussions about what to do when reaching an especially sharp curve, but the whole conundrum of dealing with a sharp and blind curve is not necessarily resolutely covered.

You see, a blind curve denotes that you cannot readily see what is up ahead on the roadway. In contrast, a sharp curve could potentially be completely visible and you can discern what lies on the other side of the driving maneuver. The trickiness about blind curves is that you never know what you are going to get, just like that proverbial and infamous box of chocolates.

It could be that another vehicle is coming around that curve toward you, though you don’t know that this potential calamity is taking place. Well, not at least until the last possible moment (and then some!). As you enter into the curve, a seemingly hidden vehicle suddenly appears as it rounds the curve going in the opposite direction. This can be startling.

Not only can it startle you, but the other question that immediately pops into your noggin is whether or not that vehicle is going to make the traversal properly. I’m sure that you’ve seen many instances wherein the car in the opposite direction decides to try and somehow navigate the blind curve in a manner that brings that vehicle partially into your lane.

If that happens, you have just split seconds to decide what to do.

Do you try to veer away from that rabbit-out-of-a-hat appearance? But if you veer then it is conceivable that you might go flying off the edge of a cliff or ram into the wall that borders the blind curve. So, you stay your course. The thing is, that guided missile could strike your car and force you off the roadway or otherwise smash up you and your vehicle.

You hope upon hopes that the transgressing driver will opt to get back into their lane. Or if you are lucky the intrusion into your lane is minimal and there is a no-harm no-foul result. There is a good chance that afterward, assuming nothing untoward has transpired, you will have to take a short respite and let your heart get back to a normal pace. The odds too are that you’ll be bone-shaking for a while and need to change your undergarments due to the overwhelming anxiety.

Those other ditzy drivers can readily misjudge a blind curve.

Dolts!

Sheepishly, let’s admit that any of us can do the same.

You might be that driver (at times).

As you come into a blind curve, you leisurely assume that you have the full width of your lane. Unfortunately, you are going just a tad fast. A feeling of gravity pulling at you like being on an amusement park roller coaster ride is starting to emerge. Anyone that is a seasoned driver knows that this could be a precursor to losing direct control of the vehicle.

I hope you’ve never had this happen.

As you take a blind curve overly confident, the car begins to lose traction on the roadway. If this continues, the vehicle can begin to skid. Once a skidding action grabs hold of the car, you might not have many options about how to keep the vehicle from moving rather uncontrollably. Panic can take over your mind and body.

In the midst of panic or by being purely reactionary, you try to oversteer. Or maybe you try to understeer. Flailing at the driving controls is not good. Some drivers believe they can accelerate out of the mess.  Sadly, in some circumstances, doing so adds fuel to the fire, as it were. Other drivers assume they can hit the brakes to get out of the skidding effect. This can also backfire and make matters worse.

It all depends upon a variety of factors, such as the nature of the blind curve, the roadway surface, the weather conditions such as being dry or rainy, the speed of the car, the weight of the car, the status of the tires, and so on. Not only aren’t newbies usually prepared for these situations, but seasoned drivers are also frequently ill-prepared too.

We can up the ante on the terrifying nature of blind curves.

Suppose you are nearing a blind curve but fail to realize that you are doing so. It could be that you are rocketing along at maximum speeds, not a care in the world. I know that it would seem nearly impossible that somebody would not detect that a blind curve is up ahead. They would have to be nutty to not discern this, so it would seem.

Two words: Distracted drivers.

A driver might be watching a funny chipmunk video on their in-car display and not paying attention to the roadway. Maybe the driver is texting on their smartphone. Heck, the driver might be engaged in a quarrel with a passenger about how many licks are needed to consume a tootsie pop and therefore their eyes and mind (and tastebuds) are inadvertently diverted away from the highway ahead.

We can toss into the mix a slew of human foibles when it comes to being behind the wheel of a car. Drowsy drivers are dull-witted and sleepy while at the driving controls. Drunk drivers are another consideration. You can count a zillion reasons why a driver might not be cognizant that a blind curve awaits them.

The good news is that usually there is a posted traffic sign that forewarns about blind curves being up ahead of you.

The bad news is that not a lot of people seem to notice those signs, or they give the notification a rather gruff and careless response. I’ve seen drivers that laughed at those posted signs. In their mind, those are signs for idiots that don’t know how to drive. Certainly, someone as accomplished as they do not need some silly posted signs.

Anyway, if you see such a traffic sign or at least are aware that a blind curve is getting close, you can presumably slow down as needed.

That’s a key to navigating blind curves, namely going slow enough as warranted for the nature of the curve and the circumstances at the moment of traversing the curve. Of course, trying to take a blind curve slowly can be a tough stance to take. Cars behind you might not like your act of slowing down. They will honk at you. Some drivers might tailgate you and aim to intimidate you into going faster.

This form of intimidation is not usually especially successful if it is a one-time instance of a blind curve. You can just keep going as you see fit. Let them be displeased, those malcontents, but at least everyone will live through the experience, hopefully.

Turns out though that oftentimes you come upon blind curves as an entire family of them. You have one blind curve that dumps you right away into another blind curve. These S-curves can be taking place again and again. Anyone behind you that believes that know better than you will probably go ballistic if you aren’t moving at the speed of light through those successive curves.

Besides attempting to slow down and take a blind curve at an appropriate speed, you can also try to exploit the width of your given lane.

For example, in some cases, it makes sense to hug the line as you enter into the blind curve and then allow your car to naturally shift in the lane toward the other line boundary. This can help to reduce the angular momentum involved in navigating the curve. Some drivers don’t know about this technique. Some do know about it but fail to use it. Others know about it and yet falter in making it work.

Another downside consideration concerning the leveraging of your lane width is that it can appear to any opposing traffic that maybe you are potentially losing control of your vehicle. In that case, the other opposing cars might make wanton moves under the assumption that you are potentially coming at them. All in all, though you weren’t doing anything wrong, those other drivers can initiate a potential catastrophe simply by misinterpreting your actions.

I’m guessing that you’ve had instruction during your initial driver training courses that suggested it might be handy to use your horn when on a blind curve. This generally seems sensible. The sound of the horn will help to alert drivers around the bend that you are coming. One would assume that the other drivers will then prepare accordingly.

The horn honking works in some places, but not particularly well in others.

If there is a local custom or practice of honking a horn on a particular set of blind curves, the other drivers will know what is going on. The problem is that many places do not embrace that kind of practice. A car that is honking its horn has an entirely different connotation.

The opposing drivers might believe that you are honking because you have lost control of your car.

Maybe a deer is in the middle of the blind curve.

Perhaps outer space aliens from another planet are landing their UFO onto the roadway (I’d like to see that, so do let me know if that happens, thanks!).

More worrisome is that the honking might imply that you have opted to move into their lane and are now on their side of the highway. What should they do in response? Once again, this can create great difficulties due to a misunderstanding or misinterpretation.

Could be a darned if you do, darned if you don’t, kind of situation.

Let’s add up all of the proper steps or actions that can be potentially employed for coping with blind curves.

Look for posted signs that forewarn about a blind curve. Upon spying on such a sign, give the sign due to consideration and don’t just shrug it off.

Reduce your speed to a sufficient speed that can safely traverse the blind curve. Any speed reduction should be done cautiously so that vehicles behind you are not caught off-guard and potentially rear-end your vehicle.

Use the lane wisely. If suitable, you can vary within your lane, though do so with caution and try not to spook the other traffic.

Stay within your lane. The moment you veer outside of your lane, troubles are bound to arise.

Watch for opposing traffic that might misjudge the blind curve. This includes that the opposing traffic can suddenly and shockingly enter your lane. Be anticipating this sour action and have your own contingencies planned and ready to enact.

Keep your mind on the driving. Keep your arms and legs actively on the driving controls. Utterly put aside those distractions and realize that a few seconds of devoted attention can be the difference between life and death.

I hadn’t emphasized earlier the life-or-death aspects. I didn’t want to make things seem overly glum. The point though is worth bringing up. In the handful of seconds that it usually takes to properly round a blind curve, you are staring not just at a dicey roadway situation, you are looking squarely in the eye at the Grim Reaper. The slightest slip-up as the driver can turn the blind curve into a killer curve.

Killer curves are blind curves that are, well, killers.

It seems perhaps dramatic to make such a proclamation, but I hope it will stick in your mind whenever your next perchance come upon a blind curve. Please take things mindfully and safely while driving a car.

Speaking of cars, the future of cars consists of AI-based true self-driving cars.

There isn’t a human driver involved in a true self-driving car. Keep in mind that true self-driving cars are driven via an AI driving system. There isn’t a need for a human driver at the wheel, and nor is there a provision for a human to drive the vehicle. For my extensive and ongoing coverage of Autonomous Vehicles (AVs) and especially self-driving cars, see the link here.

Here’s an intriguing question that is worth pondering: How will AI-based true self-driving cars handle blind curves, and what reactions will passengers potentially have?

Before jumping into the details, I’d like to further clarify what is meant when I refer to true self-driving cars.

Understanding The Levels Of Self-Driving Cars

As a clarification, true self-driving cars are ones that the AI drives the car entirely on its own and there isn’t any human assistance during the driving task.

These driverless vehicles are considered Level 4 and Level 5 (see my explanation at this link here), while a car that requires a human driver to co-share the driving effort is usually considered at Level 2 or Level 3. The cars that co-share the driving task are described as being semi-autonomous, and typically contain a variety of automated add-on’s that are referred to as ADAS (Advanced Driver-Assistance Systems).

There is not yet a true self-driving car at Level 5, which we don’t yet even know if this will be possible to achieve, and nor how long it will take to get there.

Meanwhile, the Level 4 efforts are gradually trying to get some traction by undergoing very narrow and selective public roadway trials, though there is controversy over whether this testing should be allowed per se (we are all life-or-death guinea pigs in an experiment taking place on our highways and byways, some contend, see my coverage at this link here).

Since semi-autonomous cars require a human driver, the adoption of those types of cars won’t be markedly different than driving conventional vehicles, so there’s not much new per se to cover about them on this topic (though, as you’ll see in a moment, the points next made are generally applicable).

For semi-autonomous cars, it is important that the public needs to be forewarned about a disturbing aspect that’s been arising lately, namely that despite those human drivers that keep posting videos of themselves falling asleep at the wheel of a Level 2 or Level 3 car, we all need to avoid being misled into believing that the driver can take away their attention from the driving task while driving a semi-autonomous car.

You are the responsible party for the driving actions of the vehicle, regardless of how much automation might be tossed into a Level 2 or Level 3.

Self-Driving Cars And Blind Curves

For Level 4 and Level 5 true self-driving vehicles, there won’t be a human driver involved in the driving task.

All occupants will be passengers.

The AI is doing the driving.

One aspect to immediately discuss entails the fact that the AI involved in today’s AI driving systems is not sentient. In other words, the AI is altogether a collective of computer-based programming and algorithms, and most assuredly not able to reason in the same manner that humans can.

Why this added emphasis about the AI not being sentient?

Because I want to underscore that when discussing the role of the AI driving system, I am not ascribing human qualities to the AI. Please be aware that there is an ongoing and dangerous tendency these days to anthropomorphize AI. In essence, people are assigning human-like sentience to today’s AI, despite the undeniable and inarguable fact that no such AI exists as yet.

With that clarification, you can envision that the AI driving system won’t natively somehow “know” about the facets of driving. Driving and all that it entails will need to be programmed as part of the hardware and software of the self-driving car.

Let’s dive into the myriad of aspects that come to play on this topic.

We have a rather definitive question that needs to be asked.

Will AI self-driving cars be able to properly cope with blind curves?

The answer, unfortunately, is somewhat mushy.

It all depends upon the programming and design of the AI driving system. Some automakers or self-driving tech firms will potentially devote more attention to the matter of blind curves than will others.

For example, a particular AI development team might believe that the overarching capability of driving any kind of curved roadways is sufficiently proficient to fully handle the specifics associated with blind curves. Therefore, they will not devise any elements that are honed to the nature of blind curves and instead rely on the generic curve handling features of their AI driving system.

In that case, the aspects of blind curves might be listed on an edge or corner cases listing, meaning that the AI developers acknowledge the potential need for something specific to blind curves, but they are busy with other matters and are opting to get around to blind curve programming at a later date. Of course, some might not even list blind curves as anything special to eventually be dealt with and altogether assume that their generic provisions for curved roadway handling will do.

This is partially why I politely suggest that the blind curve capabilities of AI self-driving cars could be a knuckle-gripping and panic-inducing affair.

You won’t know for sure what the programming is able to handle. This is akin to having a human driver that you aren’t sure can necessarily contend with blind curves. In the case of a human driver, you would usually try to size up the driver by observing them as they drive the car in everyday traffic. Even there, you still do not know exactly how they will deal with a blind curve.

One key difference about today’s self-driving cars that might help feel you less queasy about their traversing of blind curves is that by and large, the odds are that the blind curve you are about to reach while riding inside a self-driving car is one that the AI driving system already is familiar with.

Here’s why.

Most of today’s AI self-driving cars are making use of specially devised maps. These maps tend to go far beyond what your normal maps consist of. The automaker or self-driving tech firm will typically pre-map an entire area that is going to be considered the geofenced realm of the self-driving car. These maps can also be purchased from a third party that has done the mapping work already.

Thus, the AI driving system will already be “informed” that a blind curve exists, along with having detailed specs about the nature of the blind curve. This can include roadway markings, roadway surface contours, and the like.

Human drivers are apt to drive in areas that they’ve never driven before. Ergo, coming upon a blind curve could catch a human driver unawares. For most self-driving cars, geofencing is done to try and ensure that the autonomous vehicle stays only within the bounds of areas that are pre-mapped (especially so for Level 4). This boundary constriction reduces surprises, though keep in mind that the maps might be outdated, plus the maps don’t show what the conditions are at the moment of traversal (such as if rain is falling at the time of encountering the blind curve).

Another facet of today’s self-driving cars is that usually there are a series of driving journeys taken in the geofenced area to try and traverse as many roadways and streets as feasible. This then augments the maps. Those trial runs of the self-driving car are oftentimes undertaken with a human backup or safety driver sitting at the wheel. This driver is trained to be watching the AI driving system efforts, and possibly disengage if trouble is brewing. For my coverage about the in’s and out’s of using backup human drivers, see the link here.

Okay, the bottom line is that presumably, an AI self-driving car will have already encountered a blind curve that you might someday witness as a passenger inside the self-driving car (realizing that this is usually only the case if using the same brand or software involved). Because the AI driving system has hopefully been prepared to deal with the blind curve instance, this does somewhat reduce your anxiety.

The thing is, none of that encompasses the dynamics of the blind curve in the real-time moments of traversal.

Imagine that the AI driving system begins to slow down as it approaches a blind curve. This slowing is likely induced by the pre-mapping and the prior trial runs. All’s good so far. In a smiley face version of this traversal, the AI driving system successfully maneuvers through the blind curve. Case closed.

We can redo the scenario and make things more dynamic, as in dicier.

A human-driven car is coming in the opposite direction and heading into our blind curve.

Meanwhile, the self-driving car is outfitted with video cameras, radar, LIDAR, ultrasonic units, and other sensors. Assume that in this scenario that none of those sensors can detect what is beyond the blind curve. The self-driving car is obligingly staying in its lane and taking the blind curve as though there isn’t any other traffic involved. For my coverage about future ways that self-driving cars can potentially detect objects beyond blocked corners, see the link here.

All of sudden, the human-driven car rounds the bend and now can be detected by the self-driving car.

What does the human driver do?

What does the AI driving system do?

In the case of the AI driving system, we might reasonably assume that the AI driving system will not do anything extraordinary and will simply continue its already underway driving effort. No need to slow down since the AI has presumably already reduced speed to cope with the anticipated blind curve.

The human driver might continue along and not give any special attention to the car in the opposite lane of traffic. Thus, the human-driven car and the self-driving car pass each other, like two clouds passing in the night, none of them concerned about the other.

Or it could be that the human driver freaks out that this is a self-driving car. The human driver is worried that the self-driving car might not make the blind curve properly. So the human driver veers somewhat radically to get away from the self-driving car.

The AI driving system is bound to detect this sudden movement by the other car. Now the question arises as to what the AI driving system is going to do. Will it react in some fashion or ignore the movement and continued unabated?

A delicate and potentially life ascertaining ballet dance is now underway.

The human driver does not know what the AI driving system is possibly going to do. The AI driving system is computationally trying to mathematically predict what the human driver is going to do. Regrettably, this could spiral towards a worsening situation as they both try to anticipate and react to the other.

Sad face.

Conclusion

There are numerous additional twists and turns (sorry about the pun).

Suppose the human driver is using the technique of hugging the line and swinging over to the other line as the blind curve navigation takes place. The AI driving system could interpret this as a possibility that the other car is veering dangerously toward the self-driving car. As such, the AI driving system might try to invoke some rapid emergency driving procedures, despite there not being a necessity per se to do so.

I’ll make things even tenser.

Assume that a boulder has fallen from a cliff that borders the blind curve. This oversized rock fell just a few minutes earlier. None of the maps that the AI driving system has would showcase that a dangerous obstruction is sitting in the middle of the roadway. This will be presumably detected in real-time.

How will the AI driving system handle the blind curve in this circumstance of the fallen rock?

Add to this driving scene that a car is coming in the opposite direction and honking its horn, doing so because the driver has noticed there is a boulder ominously laying in the lanes of traffic. Would the self-driving car hear the horn? Would the horn honking be incorporated into whatever actions the AI driving system is doing or planning to do?

The variability of what can happen while driving a car is quite extensive.

Humans are usually able to adjust in real-time to unusual encounters. Whether the AI driving system has that kind of resilient or flexible programming is an open question. You can readily argue that the AI driving system won’t get drunk, won’t get drowsy, and won’t get distracted, but a much harder case to be made is that the AI driving system will be adaptable to rapidly evolving roadway conditions that haven’t been pre-programmed or prior simulated.

Passengers inside a self-driving car that is approaching a blind curve will find themselves perhaps second-guessing the AI driving system capabilities. You might want to practice your knuckle-gripping beforehand so you’ll be ready for those moments when you sit in silence and get immersed into a blind curve traversal. Here’s hoping that all goes well.

Keep your spirits up and we’ll assume that those blind curves will be eyes-wide-open negotiated by the AI.