Sunday, October 18, 2015

Self-driving Cars & Medical Emergencies

Don't hate me because I'm smarter than you. Photo courtesy of Google, Inc.

Here’s an idea for the developers of self-driving cars, such as Google/Alphabet and Tesla Motors: make them actual lifesavers. Both Google/Alphabet and Tesla are facing blowback on their efforts because of fears that their vehicles won’t perform safely, but will behave like something out of the sci-fi novel, Robopocalypse. That fear could lead to a regulatory throttling of the technology before it can even get established. It is imperative for developers to show that self-driving cars can be more than just another excuse for drivers to stop paying attention to the road. One possibility is to develop technology that allows autonomous vehicles to save lives when their drivers are incapacitated by medical emergencies.

When a driver loses consciousness, the car keeps going. Anything in its way, whether people or structures, is in trouble. These types of crashes can number approximately 25,000 per year.

Who is to blame when these incidents occur? It’s hardly the driver’s fault if their body suddenly betrays them. Nor is it the fault of the house that suddenly has a car plowing through it. But, self-driving vehicles that monitor the condition of the driver can put a stop to this sort of thing.

As the technology is still largely in the prototype stage, I will break up my suggestions into two phases: Semi-Autonomous and Full Autonomy. Some measure can be implemented immediately, while others would follow as the technology progresses.

Phase 1: Semi-Autonomous

Vehicles at this level should be able to monitor the driver’s condition via sensors, such as the heartbeat monitors found on exercise bikes at gyms, and make limited decisions on their own. Those decisions could be as simple as applying the brakes. Consider this scenario based on a real event: a driver of a sedan loses consciousness while on a busy urban street. People walking and biking are all around and suddenly vulnerable to a large, out-of-control vehicle. Through sensors inside the steering wheel and cameras focused on the driver, the sedan detects the driver losing his or her grip on the wheel and slumping. It applies the brakes immediately, then dials 911 or some other emergency number and gives its position by pulling data from the on-board sat-nav. If the sensors are robust enough, it might even give a quick diagnosis of the driver’s condition. As with all robocallers, it should add at the end, “Press 1 to repeat,” just in case the 911 operator didn’t get enough coffee that morning.

Note that this is rather like a dead-man’s switch. The car is both preventing further harm and acting as a witness to an emergency situation. It protects other road users, while calling for help. It can’t directly save the driver at this stage, though. That becomes possible at full autonomy.
"I'm sorry, Dave, but your HMO doesn't include that hospital." Photo courtesy of Emerging Technologies Blog.
Phase 2: Full Autonomy

What if the incident above took place on a rural interstate? Stopping in high-speed traffic is risky to both the sedan’s occupant and other drivers approaching from the rear. It would be better if the on-board computer was capable of recognizing the road shoulder and maneuvering onto it gradually. But what if it could do more than that? Suppose the same incident occurs on a rural interstate, but this time the sedan keeps going. It accesses the sat-nav system to locate the nearest hospital with an emergency room and plots a course for it. Simultaneously, it calls 911 to inform emergency services that it is about to deliver a patient to that hospital. It might even be able to give a reasonable diagnosis using more robust versions of the sensors mentioned previously, so that the hospital’s staff have some idea what to expect.

Here’s where it gets a bit tricky. Once the sedan arrives at the hospital property, it will have to find the emergency room entrance. That can be difficult given the sprawling nature of some regional hospitals. Plus, as hospitals expand, they often will move that entrance. Relying on a mere map database will be useless, as the vehicle might pull up to the maternity ward entrance. This sedan is going to have to be able to read signs.
Soon, your car may be able to read road signs. Later, it may open an Amazon account and download War & Peace. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia/Coolcaesar.
Thankfully, hospitals are pretty standardized when it comes to emergency room directional signage: the signs all read, “EMERGENCY.” But, the signs can be in a variety of sizes and styles. The on-board systems will have to be far more advanced than they are today. If this sedan makes it to the emergency entrance, it will have to attract attention. That can be difficult in busier hospitals, but not impossible. I suggest a siren that cannot be ignored.

Some of this, particularly the latter bit, may seem pretty far-fetched. But, to any good engineer, these are merely design challenges. Hopefully, the makers of self-driving cars will take up this challenge. We need these vehicles to be more than an excuse to eat a hot dog while roaring down the New Jersey Turnpike.