Towing and AI Self-Driving Cars


By Lance Eliot,the AI Trends Insider

Towing something behind your car is not as easy as it might seem.

When I was in my teens, a good friend had a boat that we used to take with us when his family went on camping outings to the local lake.  His father would take charge of making sure that the boat hitch was properly connected to the car, and his father also preferred to do all the driving, since he told us that towing something requires special attention and special skills. We were pretty much fine with his doing this, and we figured it made life easier for us anyway. All we had to do was go along for the ride, and then enjoy doing some exciting water skiing and some quiet-time fishing once the boat magically got into the water at the lake.

I became somewhat painfully aware that there was a skill to doing towing when I later on got into college in Southern California and decided to help a friend tow his belongings up to the Bay Area where he was going to go to college.  We went to the local U-Haul and rented one of those ubiquitous storage hitches. The attendant offered to help us connect it up, but we were too proud or too ignorant to realize that we should have welcomed his assistance. Thinking that two bright college aiming “adults” would be able to figure out what to do, we opted to do everything ourselves.

When we got to the grapevine, which is a big-rig filled, steep mountain passage that commonly is used to get from Los Angeles up to San Francisco, darned if we realized that the storage compartment was so filled with heavy items that the car could barely handle the strain of getting up the hills. We also heard a kind of grinding noise, and though loath to stop the car at this juncture on a steep hill, we pulled over and found out that we had not properly connected the hitch.

After getting it re-hitched, which was an unnerving chore on the busy highway, we were trying to now restart the towing from a complete standstill. The car began to overheat. We turned off the air conditioning in hopes that it would save the car some energy to use toward pulling the monstrosity that was connected to us. Meanwhile, the winds were whipping through the mountain passage and the storage compartment began to whipsaw. The fishtailing impact on the car was that the car itself began to become uncontrollable.

I don’t know whether to look back upon this occasion as a fond memory, or consider it one of the most dangerous, and likely stupid things to have done. Should have been better prepared. Should have made sure the hitch was set right before we began the journey. Should have realized the wind would impact us. Should have made sure the car could handle the load. Should have known or practiced how to drive with a towing load. Should have done a ton of things. We instead used the simplistic bravado that’s characteristic of the young and eager (we did eventually get to our destination, alive and well).

Let’s then consider what should happen when you are going to tow something with your car.

First, there’s the essential pre-towing preparations. Determine the towing capacity of your car, which can usually be found in the car owner’s manual. Find out if your car can handle potentially shifting into lower gears. Ensure that the car’s curb weight, which is when the car is empty and has a full tank of gas, and when added with the weight of any passengers and cargo, and add the tongue weight of the trailer, all of that should not be more than the gross vehicle weight rating (considered the total weight bearing down on the car’s tires).

If needed, you might want to get your tires checked or replaced. You might want to get your brake pads checked or replaced. Make sure the oil is good. The coolant is good. Overall, will your car be able to handle the strain. Also, think about the path itself, such as if there are steep sloping roads and what the duration of the trip will be. Maybe your car can last for an hour, but will it be able to cope with eight hours of driving time?

Second, consider what to do about the pre-towing hitching. You need the right kind of trailer hitch for your car. There is the ball type of hitch. There’s the fifth wheel type of hitch. There is the gooseneck hitch. And so on. Investigate how the hitch works. What kind of connection is required. How is the connection secured. Know your hitch like the back of your hand. When you then put the hitch on, double-check it. See that the trailer or whatever is being towed is properly connected and secured. Do you have safety chains? Do you have a lock?

Third, assuming that you are doing a trip like the one of taking items on a journey, you’ll need to drive the car with the now hitched trailer vehicle to wherever you need to load it. We drove to my friend’s house and realized that the car plus contraption would not fit in his driveway, and there wasn’t any available street parking, so we double parked in the middle of the street. We thought we’d get away with this. Given our luck, it was not going to be so easy. About halfway of loading up the storage compartment, a police car drives up to us, tells us we have to immediately move. We begged that we just needed another twenty minutes to finish the chore. No doing, they said, move it or get busted.

Fourth, once the hitched vehicle is ready to roll, you are now able to proceed on your journey. You can’t though drive like you normally do. There are aspects that change when you are towing something. I’ll discuss this more in a moment.

Fifth, once you arrive at your destination, you’ll likely have another parking chore to be undertaken and an unloading task too. When we used to go to the lake with the boat, the car had to back down a steep ramp, gradually lowering the hitch into the water. Once the water was floating the boat, we undid the boat from the hitch and gently pushed the boat into the water fully. The driver of the car was then signaled to drive up the ramp and go park the car someplace.

Sixth, eventually, once the journey has been completed, you’ll likely want to unhitch the trailer and put it someplace, or turn it back into a rental facility. You need to be able to properly unhitch it. Properly store it. And if it is yours, likely do some maintenance so it will be in shape for the next use.

In short, we have these key major steps for towing:

  •         Pre-Towing preparations
  •         Pre-Towing hitching
  •         Towing journey start
  •         Towing journey mainstay
  •         Towing journey end
  •         Unhitch

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

Towing Considered an Edge Problem for AI Self-Driving Car Software Developers

At the Cybernetic Self-Driving Car Institute, we are developing AI systems for self-driving cars, including having the AI be savvy enough to handle doing towing.

Towing is considered an edge problem by most auto makers and tech firms. An edge problem is one that is not at the core of something. The core right now for AI self-driving cars is to be able have a self-driving car that can drive in a normal fashion, being able to stay within its lanes, make lane changes, stop at stop signs, and so on. Handling a tow is not considered high priority.

Indeed, many AI developers tell me that they consider towing as already solved, since in their book if a car can drive normally, it can tow whatever it needs to tow. There isn’t anything special about towing, they claim. Why make something out of nothing. No big deal. Just let the AI drive the car, tow or no tow.

We don’t see things that way. Our view is that towing is a special case of car driving. When I was a naïve teenager, I certainly thought that towing was nothing unusual. I assumed the same falsehoods as these AI developers, namely you put the car in drive and away you go.  As I later found out, there are differences. Important differences.

Here’s what we have been developing as the AI “towing mode” capability:

  •         Self-driving car needs to go at a slower speed than normal, being extra cautious
  •         Stay in the slow lanes as much as possible, don’t get into the fast lanes unless absolutely needed
  •         When lane changing, give extra distance and be watchful of other cars that might cut in
  •         Recalibrate stopping distances since the self-driving car can’t stop as quickly as it could without the tow
  •         Recalculate stopping times as to how long it will take to bring the self-driving car to a halt
  •         Recalibrate starting times as to how quickly the self-driving car can reach certain speeds
  •         Be aware that starting from a stopped position will be longer and a strain on the self-driving car
  •         Recalibrate the total length of the self-driving car in terms of adding the length of the hitched item
  •         Try to detect fishtailing
  •         Drive to try and prevent fishtailing
  •         Be interactive with the occupants of the car for added insights about the towing
  •         Etc.

I won’t go through each of the above aspects, but can provide you a glimpse at one of the elements, namely the notion of being watchful for other cars that might cut into a roadway opening when the self-driving car is trying to change lanes.

I’m betting that you’ve seen circumstances wherein a lengthy truck is trying to make a lane change, and some jerk car decides to zip right next to the truck and not allow the truck to readily make the lane change. The perspective of the car driver is apparently that if there is open roadway space, take it. Doesn’t matter that the truck is signaling to get over. Sometimes it doesn’t even matter if the truck has already started to make the maneuver and it is dangerous such that you might nearly strike the truck by zipping past it. There’s many truck drivers that can attest to the lack of civility of car drivers (humans).

I mention this because a self-driving car with a hitched item is kind of the same thing as having a lengthy truck. The total length of the car plus the hitched item now makes lane changes unwieldly. More than unwieldly, it can be dangerous. The AI needs to realize that the methods of making lane changes that it has when the self-driving car is without a hitch are not quite the same with a hitched item.

This brings up a very important aspect about the self-driving car. When a self-driving car has a hitched item, the question arises as to how the sensors at the rear of the self-driving car will cope with the hitched item.

For example, the odds are that the cameras at the rear, which are there to detect what’s behind the self-driving car, will only see the hitched item. No longer will those cameras provide an accurate depiction of what’s really behind the self-driving car. Its view is blocked. The same can happen to the radar that’s at the rear of the car. The same can be true of the sonar. Even the LIDAR, a combination of light and radar, will undoubtedly be partially blocked by whatever the hitched item is. Of course, if the hitched item has a lower profile, it’s possible to see somewhat over it by some of the sensory devices. If it’s tall and wide, the odds are that the sensors will all be pretty much blocked.

How can you make a lane change if those sensors cannot see what’s behind the combined self-driving car and hitched item? Going on blind faith is obviously dangerous. There are some that would say that the self-driving car should not even be allowed to proceed if its rear sensors are blocked in this manner. Maybe there should even be a law that makes it illegal to tow when the self-driving car’s rear sensory capability is degraded or unable to adequately perform.

How Will the AI Self-Driving Car Know It is Towing Something?

This raises another question. How would the AI self-driving car even know that it is towing something? The AI isn’t a person. It isn’t going to just know that towing is happening. Now, it could certainly realize that the back sensors are being blocked, and so it could then opt to refuse to proceed. Or, maybe it would tell the owner or occupants that something is amiss at the rear end of the self-driving car.

Another aspect involves the owner or occupants telling outright to the AI that they are wanting to do a tow. The AI can then prepare itself for a towing mode. For a true self-driving car, which I consider a Level 5, which is a self-driving car that is supposed to be driven entirely by the AI and not require any human driver, we’re likely going to be interacting verbally with the AI, using Natural Language Processing (NLP). Think of talking to the car akin to talking to Alexa or Siri. In this manner, you could have a dialogue with the AI, telling it that you are going to be towing. The AI if savvy enough would even ask questions about the nature of the towing.

This would allow the AI to figure out what paths for the journey might be best, such as avoiding steep hills, if feasible. The AI would also then switch into the mode of undertaking the driving elements I’ve mentioned earlier. It will go at a slower speed than normal. It will realize that stopping is going to be harder and take longer to do. And so on.

One way to deal with the rear sensors being blocked would be to have some kind of extra set of sensors that could be placed onto or at the end of the hitched item. I am anticipating we’ll see towing kits for AI self-driving cars that provide this extra capability. It will be a little tricky because the question of how the extra sensors tie into the rest of the AI self-driving car needs to be determined, and also what the trustworthiness will be of those extra sensors. Suppose the human that attaches the sensors to the back of the hitched item does a lousy job and those sensors are now misreporting data to the AI system.

We’ll also be including the V2V (vehicle to vehicle communications) aspects. The AI self-driving car will likely want to communicate electronically with other nearby self-driving cars to let those self-driving cars know that it is towing something and might need extra room. They can then electronically coordinate lane changes. This will hopefully do away with the lack of civility of human drivers. But, for quite a long time we’re going to have a mix of human drivers with our AI self-driving cars, do don’t be holding your breath that we’re going to have all and only AI self-driving cars on the roadways anytime soon.

The AI needs to also be able to deal with situations such as the case of the hitch going awry, which I mentioned happened while we were on the grapevine. The AI might be able to detect that something is wrong via the sensors at the rear of the AI self-driving car, and then go into a mode of perhaps bringing the towing to a safe stop. Or, the occupants might alert the AI, via spoken commands, and ask the AI to safely pull over for an inspection.

We’re gradually seeing conventional cars have things like “smart brakes” and “smart tires” that can report their status. This would be tied into the AI of the self-driving car. During towing, the AI should be monitoring the status of the brakes and the statue of the tires, using it to adjust how the driving is coming along. And, be able to hopefully predict that something might go awry, but do so before it actually occurs.

The first set of steps about preparing for a tow are still going to be in the hands of humans for the foreseeable future. It’s still up to the human to make sure that their car is rightfully established for doing towing. The human still will need to put the hitch on. For now, only once the journey itself starts, the AI of the self-driving car mainly comes to play. I suppose we might have robots that can do this for us, but I’ll bet that we’ll have AI self-driving cars sooner than we have robots that will do so.

Towing with an AI self-driving car is something that people are going to assume they can do. Imagine that you bought this expensive AI self-driving car, and you later discover that you can’t tow anything with it. The early adopters will probably accept this idea, and say that you can’t expect the world of an AI self-driving car. As AI self-driving cars become more pervasive, I am sure that people will start to grumble that they want to use their self-driving car when they head to the hills, or the lake, or when they are moving. The answer that an AI self-driving car can’t do towing won’t be satisfying. Worse still, forcing or tricking an AI self-driving car into doing towing, if it doesn’t realize what’s taking place, I’d say is a formula for disaster. If we can get to the moon, seems like we can get an AI self-driving car to be relatively safe and sound as a towing driver. We’re aiming for that to happen.

Copyright 2018 Dr. Lance Eliot

This content is originally posted on AI Trends.