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Reinventing the human brain: How A.I. will revolutionize driverless cars

Artifical intelligence aims to replicate the human brain. (Photo: Fotolia / adimas)

If a driverless car is to truly master any traffic scenario, it must become as smart as a human. Or smarter. Artificial intelligence expert Dr. Nicolaj Stache reveals how carmakers are planning to pull off this audacious task.

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If a driverless car is to truly master any traffic scenario, it must become as smart as a human. Or smarter. Artificial intelligence expert Dr. Nicolaj Stache reveals how carmakers are planning to pull off this audacious task.

Picture yourself in the future, in your brand new self-driving car. Your ride is easily able to accelerate, break and steer itself through the sharpest bends with ease. You lean back and enjoy the drive…

Now imagine that your car is approaching a crossing where a cop is regulating traffic. He signals your car to stop. But your vehicle does not realize he’s a policeman. It can’t tell him apart from a random pedestrian and chooses to ignore him. You might just be in real trouble!

This is only one of many scenarios that require driverless cars to not only become all-seeing but, in fact, truly intelligent. We talked to a man who knows how to teach them: Nicolaj Stache is heading the Artificial Intelligence Center at Continental.

2025AD: Mr Stache, what is your vision for artificial intelligence (A.I.) in automated driving?

Nicolaj Stache: The vision that drives us is to replicate the human driver – only without replicating human mistakes. In other words, we are aiming to substitute the human brain through artificial intelligence. That’s still a long way away, but we are working on it. (laughs)

Urban traffic is a challenge for automated cars. (Photo: Fotolia / william87)

2025AD: Artificial intelligence is on everyone’s lips, yet the term has remained rather intangible…

Stache: I think a widely accepted definition would be that a machine is intelligent once its behavior cannot be told apart from human patterns. The “Turing Test” can help determine that. In this experiment, a test person communicates with a second person and a machine via computer interface. If the test person cannot tell whether his counterpart is machine or human, the machine passes the test and we have an authentic case of A.I.  

2025AD: Artificial intelligence emerged initially as a fast-rising field of research, but was all but abandoned in the late 1980s. How do you explain the incredible comeback during the past 15 years?

Stache: In the late 80s, A.I. research hit a brick wall. Scientists envisioned forms of A.I. that simply could not be achieved with the technology at that time. To advance A.I., you need tremendous computing power – thanks to high-end processors and cheaper technology, the tide has turned.

A.I. expert Nicolaj Stache

2025AD: How can automated and driverless cars benefit from A.I.?

Stache: Wherever cars will be required to understand complex traffic scenarios, we should consider A.I. Especially in urban environments like city streets and busy intersections, we have many moving objects that automated and driverless cars must recognize and react to in an appropriate way. A.I. will help future cars to anticipate the intentions of the many other road users and foresee their next moves. Fully comprehending these demanding traffic contexts will indeed be the supreme challenge for A.I., but it will make traffic safer and more efficient.

2025AD: Can you reveal what you are currently researching at the Artificial Intelligence Center?

Stache: Our current focus is on the perception and especially the interpretation of said traffic scenes, in particular for automated driving: how do cars detect and properly identify other road users and obstacles even under challenging conditions? How can a car for instance distinguish between a police officer and a regular pedestrian? Our work touches on many different areas in this respect. 

2025AD: How exactly do you go about that?

Stache: For instance, we feed a car’s neural network with training data – like pictures of traffic participants. Then the computer is put to the test in real-life scenarios where it must recognize and classify each participant by applying the trained network. It must then take the right action, for example brake if necessary.

2025AD: What do you mean by neural networks exactly?

Stache: Imagine neural networks serving as a car’s brain. To put it simply, they are structures of countless units of artificial neurons connected to each other. Each unit has parameters to influence the relationship between its inputs and its output. The optimal set of parameters is task-specific and can be determined by numerical algorithms – this process is called “training”. Once the network is trained, it can be used to classify new input, i.e. previously unknown information. Such input could be for example raw data coming from the car’s sensors, which is classified into several categories such as cars, trucks, road boundaries, people and others.

Driverless cars operate with a neural network. (Photo: BMW)

2025AD: Will cars be able to learn from their own decisions – or even from their mistakes?

Stache:  This is possible – at least for virtual cars in a simulated environment. For real cars, there is still research to be done. First, for safety reasons, it must be ensured that the change of the parameters made by learning does not have negative side effects. Another prerequisite is to enable the vehicle to recognize mistakes of the system all by itself. Only if this is the case can it learn from an error. For example, in simulation or in computer games this already works: Here the system can recognize good and bad behavior simply by the score of the game.

2025AD: That seems like it could create tons of opportunities. Will future cars also be able to learn about their drivers?

Stache: Absolutely! A car may recognize its driver through biometrics, address him by name and even sense his mood and state of mind. Imagine you are getting into a car wearing a heavy coat and feeling hot; or you are under pressure and feel stressed out. Your car may intelligently adapt parameters like seating, temperature and even speed and route to make the driving experience as pleasant as possible.

2025AD: Will the car also adjust its driving style intelligently?

Stache: That is something we are working on. The car learns the unique driving style of its human owner – and imitates it when in self-drive mode. We can assume that this will create the most pleasant automated driving experience for the human.

2025AD: So, if I tend to rev the engine and make the tires screech for a racing start, will my car then do the same?

Stache: (laughs) …well, in due consideration of all safety aspects! Your car will obviously adhere to given law and never do things that threaten you or other traffic participants.

2025AD: So besides taking care of me as a driver, will A.I. also compensate for my mistakes?

Stache: Definitely. For example, if you accidentally leave the lane, it will help you back on track properly. Current driver assistance systems can already do that. A.I. will be all about safety and comfort – imagine automated cars to be your guardian angel and an intelligent extension of your own self at the same time.

A.I. aims for safety in complex traffic situations. (Photo: Fotolia / eyetronic)

2025AD: Science fiction especially has been thriving on A.I. from day one. How does A.I. in reality differ from how it is depicted in movies?

Stache: This is also a cultural phenomenon: in the Western world, A.I. is often depicted as an evil force to threaten humanity. In Asian countries, robots are seen as our friend and helpmate. Depictions of A.I. are a projection of human fantasy and imagination. It is our job to show how in automated driving it will benefit society as a whole.

2025AD: Can A.I. become too smart – to a point where it might become scary?

Stache: At the end of the day, A.I. will be all about making traffic safer: by helping minimize road deaths and maximize safety. I do not think A.I. can be too smart if it is restricted to a particular task only. If our cars were starting to make evidently wrong decisions, they would simply not be intelligent enough.

2025AD: How do you gain acceptance for the technology?

Stache: A.I. faces extreme safety requirements, which is why we are approaching it with the utmost caution. It will be important to have security frameworks for A.I. so it never threatens or hurts people. This is the right way to win over people’s hearts.

2025AD: Your vision for A.I. is to match and even surpass the human driver: will this mission ever be accomplished?

Stache: I am sure that through the better perception performance of A.I.-based systems, i.e. a better “understanding” of the reality, we will be able to reduce the number of traffic fatalities significantly. That is the mission that counts to me. But I don’t think we’ll be able to relax and say “we’re done” any time soon. Each saved life counts!

What’s your view on automated driving and artificial intelligence? Would you trust it? If not, what would it take to make you feel more comfortable with it? Tell us in your comments below!

Comments (7)

Dummy User
vishalverma
at 11.05.2016 05:33:07

the Artificial Intelligence Center

May be we can use a co-ordinate measurement system - to identify the position and size of object.
Dummy User
Edi.Wolff
at 17.05.2016 09:06:36

Human Error

Hello all,
Human error is the reason for most of todays accidents. Misjudgement or even recklessness of the driver causes trouble in traffic. AI can and will help us [Show more...]to reduces those human errors and as a result the overall traffic casualties. 100% safety will never be achieved but I think if all the traffic runs without human interaction it will be much safer on the road.
You just have to look at the airplain systems are being used today. Most of them already work autonomously. Pilots highly depend on them and are more or less supervising the autonom systems. Millions of people travel by plane and trust the system. So why shouldn't they turst the same system build in in a car? As with all new technologies people need time to accept it. But in the end they will.
Maybe AI can help us to let traffic behave like a fluid. Increase speed if the road narrows and slow down when it's getting wider.
[Show less...]
Dummy User
fade-to-black
at 17.05.2016 14:33:16

road traffic vs. air traffic

air traffic appears to be highly managed and controlled with less room for individual decisions. try to take off with some airplane without permission, as you would normally [Show more...]set off for a average road trip in your car - you'll be in trouble. for sure. you'll likely get your pilot's license withdrawn for good.

compared to air traffic, road traffic is pure anarchy, although there are highway codes etc. getting on with that is the real challenge in autonomous driving.
[Show less...]
Dummy User
2025AD_Team
at 17.05.2016 15:20:22

Reply to road traffic vs. air traffic

A.I. to align traffic systems?

Thank you all for your farsighted thoughts! Road traffic has always been a way of individual (private) transport, whereas air traffic as a means of public transport obviously [Show more...]had to be regulated even stronger for security reasons. A.I. will not only make road traffic safer, but will also highlight the hidden amenities that riding in a car or in public transport vehicles holds (comfort, leisure). The overarching vision would be to get from A to B safely, seamlessly and intelligently - regardless of which means of transport one would use. [Show less...]
Dummy User
Chorlton1
at 20.05.2016 17:30:16

Identifying police from pedestrians

Maybe there won't be a need to identify police from pedestrians if cars are intelligent and their location is tracked. If a policeman wanted to stop a vehicle [Show more...]he wouldn't need to put himself at risk by standing in the street, he may be able to just request the vehicle or vehicles within an area to stop safely or even take an alternative route. [Show less...]
Dummy User
BRIGHTRWODZI
at 25.05.2016 14:25:12

AFRICAN COUNTRY SIDE

thank you for the mind stimulating discussions about our very foreseeable future. I really enjoy these discussions.
my question is this: what is the timeline for the [Show more...]possible introduction of the driverless cars in areas where there are no road traffic signs and noticeable structures? are the current or new generation of driverless cars being developed only for highly developed road networks? imagine the country side, dust road, deep pot-holes, humps and deeps, with no road signage, with elephants roaming around in the middle of the road...... what will be the situation then? [Show less...]
Dummy User
2025AD_Team
at 09.06.2016 17:22:44

Reply to AFRICAN COUNTRY SIDE

Automated driving in non-urban areas

@BRIGHTRWODZI, thank you for your questions! Bumpy and uneven terrain, hilly areas with strong inclinations and rural or extremely dusty environments can all pose a particular problem to [Show more...]automated cars, as both their perception of and reaction to their surroundings are challenged.

Yet at some point in the future, technology that is used in automated tractors or agricultural vehicles may help bring automated driving to said regions. As these surroundings differ from urban traffic in many aspects, technology for detecting objects and navigating difficult territory in particular would still have to be worked on.

Besides, the introduction of automated vehicles is market-driven. As soon as there is an increased demand, these technologies are more likely to be available.
[Show less...]

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