Family Road Trip and AI Self-Driving Cars


By Lance Eliot, the AI Trends Insider

Have you ever taken a road trip across the United States with your family? It’s considered a core part of Americana to make such a trip. Somewhat immortalized by the now classic movie National Lampoon’s Vacation, the film showcased the doting scatter brained father Clark Griswold with his caring wife, Ellen, and their vacation-with-your-parents trapped children, Rusty and Audrey, as they all at times either enjoyed or managed to endure a cross-country expedition of a lifetime.

As is typically portrayed in such situations, the father drives the car for most of the trip and serves as the taskmaster to keep the trip moving forward, the mother provides soothing care for the family and tries to keep things on an even keel, and the children must contend with parents that are out-of-touch with reality and that are jointly determined that come heck-or-high-water their kids will presumably have a good time (at least by the definition of the parents). The move was released in 1983 and became a blockbuster that spawned other variants. Today, we can find fault with how the nuclear family is portrayed and the stereotypes used throughout the movie, but nonetheless it put on film what generally is known as the family road trip.

What does this have to do with AI self-driving cars?

At the Cybernetic AI Self-Driving Car Institute, we are developing AI systems for self-driving cars and doing so with an eye towards how people will want to use AI self-driving cars. It is important to consider the behavior of how human occupants will be while inside an AI self-driving car and therefore astutely design and build AI self-driving cars accordingly.

In a conventional car, for a family road trip, it is pretty much the case that the parents sit in the front seats of the car. This makes sense since either the father or the mother will be the drivers of the car, often times switching off the driving task from one to the other. In prior times the driving task was considered to be “manly” and so usually the husband was shown driving the car. In contemporary times, whatever the nature of and gender of the parents, the point is that the licensed driving adults are most likely to be seated in the front of the car.

If there are two parents, why have both in the front seat, you might ask? Couldn’t you put one of the children up in the front passenger seat, next to the parent or adult that is driving the car? You can certainly arrange things that way, but the usual notion about having the front passenger be another adult or parent is that they can be watching the roadway, serving as an extra pair of eyes for the driver. The driver might be preoccupied with the traffic in front of the car, and meanwhile the front passenger notices that further up ahead there is a bridge-out sign warning that approaching cars need to be cautious. The front passenger is a kind of co-pilot, though they don’t have ready access to the car controls and must instead verbally provide advice to the driver.

The front passenger is not always shown though in movies as a dispassionate observer that thoughtfully aids the driver. Humorous anecdotes are often shown as the front passenger suddenly points at a cow and screams out load for everyone to look. The driver could be distracted by such an exclamation and inadvertently drive off the road at the sudden yelling and pointing. Another commonly portrayed scenario is the front passenger that insists the driver take the next right turn ahead, but offering such a verbal instruction once the car is nearly past the available turn. The driver is then torn between making a radical and dangerous turn, or passing the turn entirely and then likely getting berated by the front seat passenger.

Does this seem familiar to you?

If so, you are likely a veteran of family road trips. Congratulations.

What about the children that are seated in the back seat of the car? One portrayal would be of young children with impressionable minds that are carefully studying their parents and learning the wise ways of life, doing so during the vacation and they will become more learned young adults because of the experience. Of course, this is not the stuff of reality.

Kids Converse with Out-of-Touch Parents

Instead, the movies show something that pertains more closely to reality. The kids often feel trapped. Their parents are forcing them along on a trip. It’s a trip the parents want, but not necessarily what the kids want. At times feeling like prisoners, they need to occupy themselves for hours at time on long stretches of highway. Though at first it might be keen to see an open highway and the mountains and blue skies, it is something that won’t last your attention for hours upon hours, days upon days. Boredom sets in. Conversation with the parents also can only last so long. The parents are out-of-touch with the interests, musical tastes, and other facets of the younger generation.

The classic indication is that ultimately the kids will get into a fight. Not a fisticuffs fight per se, more like an arms waving and hands slapping kind of fight. And the parents then need to turn their heads and look at the kids with laser like eyes, and tell the kids in overtly stern terms, stop that fighting back there or it will be heck to pay. No more ice cream, no more allowance, or whatever other levers the parents can use to threaten the kids to behave. Don’t make me come back there, is the usual refrain.

Sometimes one or more of the kids will start crying. Could be for just about any reason. They are tired of the trip and want it to end. They got hit by their brother or sister and want the parents to know so. Etc. The parents will often retort that the kids need to stop crying. Or, as they are want to say, they’ll give them a true reason to cry (a veiled threat). If the kids are complaining incessantly about the trip, this will likely produce the other classic veiled threat of “I’d better not hear another peep out of you!”

Does the above suggest that the togetherness of the family road trip is perhaps hollow and we should abandon the pretense of having a family trip? I don’t think so. It’s more like showing how family trips really happen. In that sense, the movie National Lampoon’s Vacation was a more apt portrayal than a Leave It To Beaver kind of portrayal, at least in more modern times.

Indeed, today’s family road trips are replete with gadgets and electronics in the car. The kids are likely to be focusing on their smartphones and tablets. The car probably has WiFi, though at times only getting intermittent reception as the trip across some of the more barren parts of the United States takes place. There might be TV’s built into the headrests so the kids can watch movies that way. One of the more popular and cynical portrayals of today’s family road trips is that there is no actual human-to-human interaction inside the car, since everyone is tuned into their own electronic device.

Given the above description of how the family road trip seems to occur, what can we anticipate for the future?

First, it is important to point out that there are varying levels of self-driving cars. The topmost level, a level 5 self-driving car, consists of having AI that can drive the car without any human intervention. This means there is no need for a human driver. The AI should be able to do all of the driving, in the same manner that a human could drive the car. At the levels less than 5, there is and must be a human driver in the car. The self-driving car is not expected to be able to drive entirely on its own and relies upon having a human driver that is at-the-ready to take over the car controls.

See my article about the levels of AI self-driving cars:

See my article that indicates my framework for AI self-driving cars:

For the levels less than 5, the AI self-driving car is essentially going to be a lot like a conventional car in terms of what happens during the family road trip. Admittedly, the human driver will be able to have a direct “co-pilot” of sorts to co-share in the driving task via the AI, but otherwise the car design is pretty much the same as a conventional car. This is because you need to have the human driver seated at the front of the car, and the human driver has to have access to car controls to then drive the car. With that essential premise, you can’t otherwise change too much of the interior design of the car.

As an aside, there are some that have suggested maybe we don’t need the human driver to be looking out the windshield and that we can change the car design accordingly. We could put the human driver in the back seat and have them wear a Virtual Reality headset and be connected to the controls of the car via some kind of handheld devices or foot-operated nearby devices. Cameras on the hood and top of the car would beam the visual images to the VR headset. Yes, I suppose this is all possible, but I really doubt we are going to see cars go in that direction. I would say it is a likelier bet that cars less than a level 5 will be designed to look like a conventional car, and only will the level 5 self-driving cars have a new design. We’ll see.

For a level 5 self-driving car, since there is no need for a human driver, we can completely remake the interior of the car. No need to put a fixed place at the front of the car for the human driver to sit. No need for the human driver to look out the windshield. Some of the new designs suggest that one approach would be to have swivel seats for let’s say four passengers in the normal sized self-driving car. The four swivel seats can be turned to face each other, allowing a togetherness of discussion and interaction. At other times, you can rotate the seats so that you have let’s say two facing forward as though the front seats of the car, and the two behind those that are also facing forward.

Other ideas include allowing the seats to become beds. It could be that two seats can connect together and their backs be lowered, thus allowing for a bed, one that is essentially at the front of the car and another at the back of the car. Part of the reason that some are considering designing beds into an AI self-driving car is the belief that AI self-driving cars might be used 24×7, and people might sleep in their cars while on their way to work or while on their vacations.

See my article about the non-stop 24×7 nature of AI self-driving cars:

Another design aspect involves lining the interior of the self-driving car with some kind of TV or LEDs that would allow for the interior to be a kind of movie theatre. This would allow for watching of movies, shows, live streaming, and even for doing online education. This also raises the question as to whether any kind of glass windows are needed at all. Some assert that we don’t need windows anymore for a Level 5 self-driving car. Instead, the cameras on the outside of the car can show what would otherwise be seen if you looked out a window. The interior screens would show what the cameras show, unless you then wanted to watch a movie and thus the interior screens would switch to displaying that instead.

Are we really destined to have people sitting in self-driving car shells that have no actual windows? It seems somewhat farfetched. You would think that people will still want to look out a real window. You would think that people would want to be able roll down their window when they wish to do so. Now, you could of course have true windows and make the glass out of material that can become transparent at times, and then become blocked at other times, thus potentially have the best of both worlds. We’ll see.

Interior Seat Configuration to be Determined

For a family road trip, you could configure the seats so that all four are facing each other, and have family discussions or play games or otherwise directly interact. This might not seem attractive to some people, or might be something that they sparingly do when trying to have a family chat. As mentioned, the seats could swivel to allow more of a conventional sense of privacy while sitting in your seat. I’d suggest though that the days of the parents saying don’t make us come back there are probably numbered. The “there” will be the same place that the parents are sitting. Maybe too much togetherness? Or, maybe it will spark a renewal of togetherness?

Another factor to consider is that none of the human occupants needs to be a driver. In theory, a family road trip has always consisted of one or more drivers, and the rest were occupants. Now, everyone is going to be an occupant. Will parents feel less “useful” since they are no longer undertaking the driving task directly? Or, will parents find this a relief since they can use the time to interact with their children or catch-up on their reading or whatever?

This has another potentially profound impact on the family road trip, namely that no one needs to know how to drive a car. Thus, in theory, you could even have just and only the children in the self-driving car and have no parents or adults at all. I’d agree that this doesn’t feel like a “family” trip at that point, but it could be that the parents are at the hotel and the kids want to go see the nearby theme park, and so the parents tell the kids they can take the self-driving car there.

How should the interior of the self-driving car be reshaped or re-designed if you have only children inside the car for lengths of time? Would there be interior aspects that you’d want to be able close off from use or slide away to be hidden from use? Perhaps you would not want the children to swivel the swivel seats and be able to lock in place the swivel seats during their journey. Via a Skype-like communication capability, you would likely want to interact with the kids, they seeing you and you seeing them via cameras pointed inward into the self-driving car.

Without a human driver, the AI is expected to do all of the driving. When you go on a cross-country road trip, you often discover “hidden” places to visit that are remote and not on the normal beaten path. The question will be how good is the AI when confronted with driving in an area that perhaps no GPS exists per se. Driving on city roads that have been well mapped is one thing. Driving on dirt roads that are not mapped or for which no map is available, this can be a trickier aspect. Suppose too that you want to have the self-driving car purposely go off-road. The AI has to be able to do that kind of driving, assuming that there is no provision for a human driver and only the AI is able to drive the car.

An AI self-driving car at a Level 5 will normally have some form of Over-The-Air (OTA) capability. This allows the AI to get updated by the auto maker or tech firm, and also for the AI to report what is has discovered into the auto maker or tech firm cloud for collective learning purposes. On a cross country road trip, the odds are that there will be places that have no immediate electronic communication available. Suppose there’s an urgent patch that the OTA needs to provide to the AI self-driving car? This can be dicey when doing a family road trip to off-road locations.

See my article about OTA:

Suppose the family car, an AI self-driving car, suffers some kind of mechanical breakdown during the trip? What then? Keep in mind that a self-driving car is still a car. This means that parts can break or wear out. This means that you’ll need to get the car to a repair shop. And, with the sophisticated sensors on an AI self-driving car, it will likely have more frequent breakdowns and will require more sophisticated repair specialists and cost more to be repaired. The road trip could be marred by not being able to find someone in a small town that can deal with your broken down AI self-driving car.

See my article about automotive recalls and AI self-driving cars:

The AI of the self-driving car will become crucial as your driving “pilot” and companion, as it were. Take us to the next town, might be a command that the human occupants utter. One of the children might suddenly blurt out “I need to go to the bathroom” – in the olden days the parents would say hold it until you reach the next suitable place. What will the AI say? Presumably, if its good at what it does, it would have looked up where the next bathroom might be, and offer to stop there. This though is trickier than it seems. We cannot assume that the entire United States will be so well mapped that every bathroom can be looked up. The AI might need to be using its sensors to identify places that might appear to have a bathroom, in the same manner that a parent would furtively look at the window at a gas station or a rest stop.

See my article about NLP and voice commands for AI self-driving cars:

There is also the possibility of using V2V (vehicle to vehicle communications) to augment the family road trip. With V2V, an AI self-driving car can potentially electronically communicate with another AI self-driving car. Maybe up ahead there is an AI self-driving car that has discovered that the paved road has large ruts and it is dangerous to drive there. This might be relayed to AI self-driving cars a mile back, so those AI self-driving cars can avoid the area or at least be prepared for what is coming. The AI of those self-driving cars could even warn the family (the human occupants) to be ready for a bumpy ride for the mile up ahead.

There is too the possibility of V2I (vehicle to infrastructure communications). This involves having the roadway infrastructure electronically communicate with the AI self-driving car. It could be that a bridge is being repaired, but you wouldn’t know this from simply looking at a map. The bridge itself might be beaming out a signal that would forewarn cars within a few miles that the bridge is inoperable. Once again the AI self-driving car could thus re-plan the journey, and also warn the occupants about what’s going on.

One aspect that the AI can provide that might or might not have been done by a parent would be to explain the historical significance and other useful facets about where you are. Have you been on a family road trip and researched the upcoming farm that was once run by a U.S. president, or maybe there’s a museum where the first scoop of ice cream was ever dished out? A family road trip is often done to see and understand our heritage. What came before us? How did the country get formed? The AI can be a tour guide, in addition to driving the car.

See my article about AI as tour guide for a self-driving car:

As perhaps is evident, the interior of the self-driving car has numerous possibilities in terms of how it might be reshaped for the advent of true Level 5 AI self-driving cars. For a family road trip, the interior can hopefully foster togetherness, while also allowing for privacy. It might accommodate sleeping while driving from place to place. The AI will be the driver, and be guided by where the human occupants want to go. In addition to driving, the AI can be a tour guide and perform various other handy tasks too. This is not all rosy though, and the potential for lack of electronic communications could hamper the ride, along with the potential for mechanical breakdowns that might be hard to get repaired.

No more veiled threats from the front seats to the back seats. I suppose some other veiled threats will culturally develop to replace those. Maybe you tell the children, behave yourselves or I won’t let you use the self-driving car to go to the theme park. Will we have AI self-driving cars possibly zipping along our byways with no adults present and only children, as they do a “family” road trip? That’s a tough one to ponder for now. In any case, enjoy the family road trips of today, using a conventional car or even a self-driving car up to the level 5. Once we have level 5 AI self-driving cars, it will be a whole new kind of family road trip experience.

Copyright 2018 Dr. Lance Eliot

This content is originally posted on AI Trends.