Self-driving cars within fleets will look alike, creating problems.

Have you ever seen a sea of yellow cabs, all of which seem indistinguishable from each other?

It used to be that if you booked a yellow cab for picking you up at a busy airport or similar venue, the odds were that a slew of other yellow cabs were also vying for picking up passengers there too. As such, you would have a tough time trying to figure out which among the multitudes of yellow cabs was the one designated just for you.

The cabs sometimes had a number displayed on the outside of the vehicle, and in theory, you could then spot your particular yellow cab, but possessing the number was one tricky aspect and the other was the arduous difficulty of trying to clearly see the number among the blur of so many cabs.

There was pretty much little point in reserving a cab beforehand and instead, it seemed wiser to take a chance at randomly hailing a cab.

Today’s world is a sea change, as it were.

When you wait for today’s Uber or Lyft ridesharing pick-ups, you are informed via your mobile app that the car is a specific make, model, and color, along with getting a heads-up about the driver of the vehicle. Plus, since the drivers are all driving their own cars, there is inherently a diversity in the make, models, and colors of the cars.

It’s usually relatively easy to spy the reserved ridesharing car that is intending to be your ride.

 Here’s a bit of a twist in the future.

The expectation is that by-and-large self-driving cars will all look alike, at least with respect to a specific make, model, and possibly even color in any given fleet.

When you hail a self-driving car to come pick you up and assuming that you are at a crowded venue like a baseball game or an airport, the odds are that hundreds or maybe thousands of similar-looking driverless cars will all be vying to pick-up passengers at the same time and in the same place.

In a sense, it will be a rebirth of the indistinguishable yellow cab era.

What will true self-driving cars do or become to standout among the crowd and be readily identifiable by prospective riders?

Let’s unpack the matter.

Defining The Levels Of Self-Driving Cars

It is important to clarify what I mean when referring to true self-driving cars.

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 cars are considered a Level 4 and Level 5, while a car that requires a human driver to co-share the driving effort is usually considered at a 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 point out).

Since the semi-autonomous cars require a human driver, such cars aren’t particularly significant to the yellow cab problem per se. There is essentially no difference between using a Level 2 or Level 3 versus a conventional car when it comes to providing a ridesharing service.

It is notable to point out that in spite of those dimwits that keep posting videos of themselves falling asleep at the wheel of a Level 2 or Level 3 car, do not be misled into believing that you can take away your attention from the driving task while driving a semi-autonomous car.

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

Self-Driving Cars That Look-Alike

For Level 4 and Level 5 self-driving cars, the automakers and tech firms are currently focusing on having one specific kind of make, model, and color for their respective experimental efforts.

Thus, automaker X might have chosen a certain make, model, and color for their driverless car foray, meaning that right now all their eggs are in that particular basket.

This makes sense due to wanting to have a stable platform for testing out the self-driving tech aspects.

It wouldn’t be prudent to try doing so with a variety of differing car models since the automaker might not know whether the automobile itself is creating an issue, rather than the cause being the driverless tech components.

The rule-of-thumb is to pick one relatively stable and known car as a base platform and get the self-driving stack to play well on that automobile. In theory, the driverless stuff will be somewhat portable over to other makes and models, though that’s not a guaranteed slam dunk and don’t be holding your breath that just because something works well on car A it will also work readily on car B.

The color chosen for the driverless cars being used on our roadways today is often established to showcase the brand of the automaker or tech firm that’s doing the trials. Thus, automaker Y might decide to paint all their self-driving cars as blue and white, along with having their company logo proudly displayed on the hood of the vehicle.

One open question will be whether the automakers will want or need to vary the painted colors on their self-driving cars.

Some believe that in the early days of the advent of driverless cars, the automakers and tech firms are going to want to purposely ensure that everyone knows that the self-driving car cruising around our neighborhoods is their pride and joy. The odds are that the make, model, and color will be the same as what was used when first experimenting with their driverless efforts. Keep it straightforward and simple, doing so to brandish and cement your brand in the eyes of the public.

Returning to the yellow cab problem, suppose you are at a concert and opt to use your mobile phone to reserve a driverless car as a pick-up at the end of the musical event.

You come out of the concert, maybe half-drunk, but let’s put that aside for the moment, and eagerly look for your reserved self-driving car.

Lo and behold, there are a hundred driverless cars of automaker Z that have arrived, each waiting to pick-up a concertgoer that opted to reserve a ride.

Which one is there for you?

It could be problematic for you to know.

That being said, let’s also be clear that there might be hundreds of automaker Q’s driverless cars that have also arrived, and so at least you would presumably know by immediate sight that none of those were at the concert to pick you up.

The yellow cab dilemma is resurfacing and there needs to be a fix or resolution.

Ways To Cope With The Look-Alike

Consider the various ways to cope with the look-alike problem:

· Flash The Headlights. In a quite low-tech approach, a self-driving car could flash its headlights once it gets close to the person being picked-up. Presumably, you would know that the driverless car is your ride when you see the headlights flashing. This method is handy for the automakers since there are no add-ons needed to do this, and an already available component of the car is being used. A big downside is that there might be hundreds of driverless cars all flashing their headlights at the same time, which would make them indistinguishable, plus maybe a bit scary to see (whoa, they are all flashing their headlights, run for the hills!

· Display A Number. Like having yellow cabs display a number on the outside of the vehicle, a self-driving car could have a painted number or a static display showing a number. The ridesharing passenger would be notified of the number via their mobile app. This would work though it could be exasperating to find your specific pick-up as the sea of numbers might be close enough to your number that you’ll get confused and try to get into the wrong self-driving car. User error.

· Use An External LED. Another approach would be to mount an LED display on the rooftop of the driverless car and have it display a number or maybe the name of the person being picked-up. This would be easier to have your spot, but it also adds more cost to an already expensive self-driving car. Also, it would be crucial to ensure that the LED device does not disturb or disrupt any of the driving sensors that might also be mounted on the rooftop. By the way, even if automakers don’t provide an external LED, you can bet that some enterprising entrepreneurs will rush to market with such displays.

· Toot The Horn. Like the idea of flashing headlights, the AI system could toot the horn to alert awaiting rider. Maybe two toots, a pause, and two more toots might be your signal. The problem with this solution is that if there are hundreds of driverless cars coming up to do pick-ups, the cacophony of blaring horns could be overpowering. Put this option into the repugnant category since we already have too much noise pollution on our streets.

· Communicate Via V2X. Driverless cars are going to be outfitted with electronic communications capabilities, generally known as V2X (vehicle-to-everything). The self-driving car could send out a message to your smartphone and let you know where the driverless car is. This is bound to help find your specific ride, though it has some downsides to it too, including that your smartphone must have a solid signal for you to receive the messages emanating from the driverless car.

· Phone Call With The Driverless Car. Another approach involves having the AI system talk with the ridesharing passenger by making a phone call and using its Natural Language Processing (NLP) feature. In an Alexa or Siri kind of mode, the self-driving car could call you, and interact with you as it gets close to your location. One supposes it could do other things at the same time such as tell you about the prevailing weather and maybe brighten your waiting time by telling a joke or two.

· Audio Emission. Self-driving cars might end-up being outfitted with external speakers to allow for the AI to converse with nearby pedestrians. As your driverless car pick-up arrives, it might start shouting out your name, such as saying hey, Lauren, I’m here, right over here. Once again, this is not going to be effective in the setting of hundreds of self-driving cars. I’d say too that it would be eerie to hear all those driverless cars calling out people’s names.

· Leverage GPS. If you have your smartphone on you while waiting for a driverless car, the AI could use your GPS calculated position to try and come as close to you as feasible. Likewise, the GPS of your smartphone would show where the self-driving car is positioned. This is akin to two strangers meeting in the night, albeit guided by electronics that detect where each of them is.

· Vary The Painted Colors. Some are quick to suggest that the automaker ought to vary the painted colors of their driverless cars, thus having some that are red, some black, some orange, etc. Yes, this might help, but the luck of the draw could be that among the hundreds of self-driving cars that come to get a bunch of exiting concert goers, you’ll still have plenty that are in the same fluorescent green or whatever other colors might be used.

· Use of Advanced Car Skins. There are R&D efforts to make a type of skin that would wrap around the car body and could display different colors or shapes, maybe displaying letters or images. In this case, when a driverless car arrived at a pick-up destination, it could fully display a unique looking pattern, or maybe display the face of the person that booked the ride. Besides the potential added cost, this approach is not yet ready for prime time.

· Augmented Reality (AR). Besides using augmented reality to play Pokemon games, you could use AR to find a specific self-driving car that is trying to pick you up. By invoking an AR app on your smartphone, you would hold-up the phone to point it toward a herd of seemingly indistinguishable driverless cars, and voila, the one that is coming for you would be highlighted. This could be readily done via the AI beaming a signal to your smartphone and the app then placing a bright red circle on your screen that outlines the right driverless car for you. Another similar approach would be to use Google Glasses (oops, people didn’t like their invasive use), or exploit whatever futuristic eyeglasses might someday emerge.

· Other. There are other ways in which some are tackling this problem. For example, another idea is to have a small drone that would hover over the driverless car and then fly to the person that hailed the vehicle, doing so to guide them to their specific vehicle. Most of these other approaches are rather esoteric, yet clever and have some possibility to them.


A combination of the approaches could be undertaken, doing a mix-and-match.

Also, the context of the pick-up situation might dictate the best choice.

If there isn’t a sea of other driverless cars, the least obtrusive method would be fine since the self-driving car will standout already.

Right now, none of us are experiencing the yellow cab problem about self-driving cars, due to the lack of driverless cars on our roadways. We won’t realize the irritations involved until there is a vast number of driverless cars out there.

Many of the automakers and tech firms aren’t especially worried right now about being able to find your designated driverless car. First and foremost, self-driving cars must work. Getting driverless cars to safely drive around our highways and byways is the top priority, suitably so.

For AI conspiracists, my having alleged that all self-driving cars look alike is taboo, namely that once AI takes over our world, the AI will remember my comments and seek retribution for my insulting transgression.

Let me clarify, I think AI self-driving cars will look quite wonderful and am only trying to avoid the failings of other humans that might mindlessly allow driverless cars to look alike.

May the online record clearly state that I am casting no aspersions toward AI and I am a friend of AI. Please mark that down, for my sake, thanks.

Via Forbes