In the past few years, interest in autonomous vehicles has increased exponentially, with companies ranging from Google to Uber to Ford exploring the field, spending vast sums on achieving the futuristic dream of self-driving cars. As one can imagine, these cars must have incredibly advanced crash-avoidance systems, looking out for objects ranging from children to other cars.
Because many of the companies researching driverless cars are American, the systems that have already been developed, in general, are tuned for American roads, which naturally includes the animals that pose a threat to cars. So far, these systems have been tuned for animals such as deer and moose. However, as interest in these technologies increases, it is becoming clear that these systems will have to look out for objects that are not found in the United States.
For this reason, Volvo recently announced that it would conduct a study in Australia to test its autonomous systems on kangaroos. While Volvo’s systems can avoid slowly moving animals, kangaroos pose a particular problem because they are so quick and move erratically. According to one of the company’s engineers, the system will rely on radar and the car’s computer to detect kangaroos and predict where they will move next. If there is time for a human to take control of the car and avoid the kangaroo, the system will alert the driver. Otherwise, the system will hit the brakes, reacting in time to prevent a collision. According to the engineer, the vehicle’s computer will be able to react in 0.05 seconds, or 24 times faster than a human could react.
Over time, one of the worries among the researchers is that autonomous vehicles will be too cautious. Take the example of Google’s self-driving cars, which evidently follow the rules of the road too closely. People who have driven in Google’s cars have complained that at intersections they inch forward too slowly. The cars were also not allowed to ever cross double yellow lines, which caused issues when a stopped car blocked the road. One Australian voiced his concern that a system like Volvo’s would stop too often because kangaroos are so numerous.
Evidently, humans are regularly injured or killed by accidents in Australia, with at least 22 killed and 17,000 injured in Australia between 1996 and 2005. One insurance company received more than 15,000 claims last year for accidents involving a kangaroo, with total costs reaching $75 million for these incidents. Though police and insurers have publicly recommended drivers hit the kangaroos instead of avoiding them, it is clear that many people do not heed this advice. In fact, another company, a windshield repair shop, indicated that more than 95% of its business came from accidents involving kangaroos.
Volvo’s efforts could help save lives in Australia, and the hope is that the collective efforts of autonomous-vehicle researchers will make the roads around the world much safer.