AI Self-Driving Cars And Baby-On-Board Raises Intriguing Issues

Dr. Lance Eliot, AI Insider

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[Ed. Note: For reader’s interested in Dr. Eliot’s ongoing business analyses about the advent of self-driving cars, see his online Forbes column:]

You’ve undoubtedly seen the famous Baby On Board signs that were a crazed one-hit wonder during the mid-1980s.

When the fad first emerged, it seemed like these ubiquitous yellow-colored signs and their bumper sticker variants were popping up on cars everywhere.

At first, it seemed that most people genuinely placed such a sign in the rear window of their cars as a means of letting other drivers know that there was a baby or small child inside the moving car.

The notion was to forewarn other drivers to be especially careful when driving near to the car, presumably wanting to make sure that other drivers were supposed to regard the car as “special” since it contained a baby.

It was kind of a back-handed insult to these other drivers. One interpretation was that you, the person reading the sign, were a really crummy driver and that by announcing the presence of a baby, you were having a finger wagged at you to not be such a careless and witless driver.

Rumors abounded that the sign was actually intended to alert emergency services or first responders whenever they came upon a car accident scene. The original developers and firm that brought the Baby On Board to worldwide attention had mainly in mind the idea of forewarning other drivers to be careful when near to a car with a baby in it. There is scant evidence to suggest that somehow babies weren’t being pulled out of car wrecks.

For some people, the sign shifted in meaning toward a source of pride that they had a baby, regardless of whether the baby was actually in the car at the time or not.

Of course, having the sign on your car when you didn’t actually have your baby in the car was kind of defeating the purpose of the sign. This aspect of leaving the sign in your car window when you didn’t have a baby in the car was yet another source of aggravation for some other drivers.

Downsides Of Baby-On-Board Signs

Use of the sign on your car was considered questionable in other ways.

For example, some states in the United States got worried that the signs would use up space on your car window and obstruct your view. It was even outlawed with a ticketed violation in some jurisdictions, prohibiting you from putting one on your car window.

There are various urban myths and other fascinating tales during the heyday of the Baby On Board signs.

One popular tale was that drug smugglers would at times use the sign, in hopes of fooling the police into assuming that a car that had drugs would most certainly not have drugs, because of course no one would put illegal drugs into a car that had a cute innocent baby in it.

Partially due to the confusion about the sign and the backlash, the fad eventually waned.

Nonetheless, the sign and the saying became an enduring icon.

Baby On-Board Aspects

Let’s for the moment consider what it means to truly have a baby on-board of your car.

Going all the way back to the 1920s, the early versions of baby car seats were essentially sawed-off high-chairs that had straps and some other restraints on them. The focus was to simply keep the baby from being able to move around in the car. There wasn’t much thought given to the safety of the baby and nor what might happen to the baby when the car got into an accident or performed some radical driving maneuver.

Until the late 1960s, most baby seats were about the same in terms of lack of careful consideration for what a baby seat should do. The auto makers began to provide so-called love seats and guard seats for housing a baby inside a car during the latter part of the 1960s, and then during the 1970s the United States began regulating the safety aspects of baby seats.

At one point, there was almost a baby seats “war” in which different baby seat makers vied to get parents to buy their particular brand and models of baby seats. Do you have love in your heart for your baby? Would you give anything to protect your baby? If so, it seemed that the baby seat makers would shame you into buying the most expensive baby seat they could make. The more the baby seat looked like an astronaut’s seat, it was assumed by many parents that they were doing the right thing by buying such an elaborate contraption.

During this time period, there was research undertaken that indicated having the baby ride in the backseat is much safer than having the baby ride in the front seat.

There was also research that indicated the baby should be placed in a rear-seat facing manner.

Another factor became how to affix the baby seat into the car.

Though the car-related baby seat topic tends to dominate attention about having a baby in a car, I’d like to cover various other elements involved in having a baby in a car as well.

One aspect that I alluded to already involves the desire to keep tabs on the baby. An adult in the car should presumably be making sure that the baby is doing okay. This would usually involve trying to watch the baby and see how the baby is doing. You might also be listening to determine whether the baby is happy or maybe crying. The baby might also wiggle around and be flailing, the movement of which might make noise or might catch your visual attention out of the corner of your eye.

If you are driving a car and it is just you and the baby in the car, this desire to drive well and pay attention to the baby can be challenging.

Nuances Of Babies On-Board

Now that I’ve covered the aspects about the baby seat and the difficulties of keeping tabs on your baby while you are driving a car, let’s consider some other elements too.

Suppose you put the baby into your proper baby seat and the baby seat is correctly secured in your car.

You opt to go on a leisurely drive along the coastline. It’s a gorgeous sunny day. You drive along the coast highway and admire the ocean and the sunshine. Unfortunately, you failed to consider the sun exposure that the baby is getting in the backseat of the car. The baby is likely not able to realize the dangers of sun exposure and nor alert you to the aspect they are getting sunburned (as you know, adults get sunburned all the time, not realizing it is happening until long after it occurs).

This brings up the importance of making use of sunscreens, either physical ones on the car windows or attached to the baby seat, or some kind of protection for the baby from the sun rays.

Lots of other dangers are possible.

AI Self-Driving Cars And Baby On-Board

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

Let’s consider what the AI can do about a baby being inside a self-driving car when the self-driving car is at a true Level 5. Since the true Level 5 self-driving car does not need a human driver, this implies one of several possibilities about the baby being inside the self-driving car.

First, it could be that there is an adult in the self-driving car and essentially an occupant with the baby.

In that case, the adult would hopefully be monitoring the baby. The AI could still be monitoring the baby, perhaps as a double-check or as further assistance to the adult. If the adult is perhaps weak in their faculties, maybe an elderly grandparent that is not so able to tend to the baby, the AI might serve as an adjunct to the adult.

Second, it could be that there is not an adult in the self-driving car and only a minor that accompanies the baby.

This is an easy scenario to imagine. Suppose you decide to have your AI self-driving car drop-off your two children at grandma’s house. You are too busy to go along. You put your 6-year-old daughter and your baby boy into the self-driving car, and you command the AI to take them to grandma’s.

You are making an assumption that your 6-year-old daughter can take care of the baby during the driving journey. Though you might believe that to be the case, in most states you are likely violating a provision about making sure that an adult is accompanying your baby. A minor is not considered the equivalent of having an adult present.

I’m sure that people will be tempted to assume that with the AI monitoring the baby and their daughter, and with the likelihood too of the remote parent being able to electronically communicate with the AI self-driving car, such as watching the camera feeds, this will be sufficient to then allow their unaccompanied children to be driving around in the AI self-driving car. Parents that are pressed for time will consider this handy as a means of transporting their children for them.

I’d say that we are heading toward a societal, ethical, and regulatory matter that will require discussion and debate.

Right now, if you do ridesharing for your children, they nonetheless still have an adult in the car, namely the ridesharing driver. There is in theory no means for you to currently put your underage children into a car and have that car go anyplace without at least one adult present, namely the human driver.

Babies On-Board And No Other Humans On-Board

We can make the scenario of having underage occupants even more extreme.

Suppose you put your baby into the baby seat of the AI self-driving car and then command the AI to take your baby over to the house of a babysitter that you use.

During the driving journey, the baby is unaccompanied.

There is no other human inside the self-driving car.

Should we be comfortable with the idea that if the AI is monitoring the baby and suppose that the parent has remote access, we are okay with the baby being in the car by itself?

It seems hard to imagine that we would as a society accept this idea. If the baby suddenly has a severe problem, there is no immediate recovery possible since there is not another human inside the self-driving car.

You might try to claim that the AI self-driving car could try to seek help if the baby is having troubles. Maybe the AI dials 911. Maybe the AI sends out an emergency beacon via V2V and seeks assistance from other nearby cars and their potential human adult occupants. Perhaps the AI drives the self-driving car to the nearest hospital. Yes, these are all possibilities, but they seem rather second-best, at best, in terms of caring for the baby.

We’ll have to wait and see what we opt to do as a society.

Let’s pretend that the practice of having your baby in a true Level 5 AI self-driving car and alone as a human occupant gets outlawed.

We all know that practices that are outlawed are not necessarily ergo no longer undertaken. A parent might opt to normally not put the baby in the AI self-driving car by itself, but perhaps they decide to break the rule, just this once, and do so because they are pressed to do something else and believe they have a good reason to violate this law.

What then?

Well, we could guess that the AI would likely be able to ascertain that the baby is alone in the AI self-driving car. If that’s the case, should the AI then refuse to proceed? Perhaps we have the auto makers and tech firms place a special stop-mode that the AI won’t allow the self-driving car to get underway if there is a baby and no accompanying other human (this has its own challenges too, such as whether the other human is a minor versus an adult, etc.).

Or, suppose the AI self-driving car gets underway, somehow then realizes there is an unaccompanied baby in the car, should it report this aspect to the authorities? Perhaps it calls the police. The AI could drive the self-driving car to the nearest police station or rendezvous with a police car. I realize this seems far-fetched and hard to contemplate, but these scenarios are bound to happen.

If we eventually have hundreds of millions of AI self-driving cars on our roadways, all kinds of things are going to occur in terms of how people decide to make use of an AI self-driving car.

Suppose too that you are a ridesharing firm and you are letting people use your Level 5 or Level 4 AI self-driving cars.

A rider puts a baby into your ridesharing car, tells the AI to go to some destination, and slips out of the self-driving car. During the driving journey, something happens to the baby and it gets injured. Who is responsible for this? Since you provided the ridesharing car, presumably you have some culpability in whatever happens to the unaccompanied baby.

I’ve predicted that we might see a new kind of job role in society, namely the role of being a kind of AI self-driving car “nanny” or caregiver. The person would be hired to ride in an AI self-driving car and be there to accompany minors. They might also be there to aid someone that is elderly and not of full faculties. They might be there to assist in riders getting into and out of the AI self-driving car. Note that the person does not need to know how to drive a car (because the AI is doing the driving), which would reduce the barrier to entry for these kinds of positions. Etc.

AI Driving Efforts And Baby-On-Board

As a final thought for now, let’s assume that there is a baby inside an AI self-driving car, and the baby might or might not be accompanied by another human (as I say, this is yet to be decided by society).

Should the AI self-driving car drive any differently?

Some would assert that the AI should drive the self-driving car in a fully legal and cautious manner, regardless of who or what might be inside the AI self-driving car. I think this is a bit of an over-simplification of the matter. There are degrees of driving that can range from being overly cautious to overly carefree. It is conceivable that the AI can devise a smoother ride for situations such as having a baby inside the AI self-driving car.

When my children were babies, I would definitely be more delicate when I saw a pothole up ahead or a dip in the road. If they had fallen asleep, I would try to avoid any radical turns or fast maneuvers. All of those driving aspects were perfectly legal and none of them were illegal. There is a wide range of discretion in how you drive a car, within the bounds of driving legally.

One aspect too will be the possibility of trying to avoid car sickness for your baby. Adults can get car sick. Babies can also get car sick. I would suggest that a baby is maybe even more generally prone to potential car sickness. The manner of how you drive your car can contribute toward car sickness. In that sense, the AI could adjust its driving approach to try and reduce the chances of car sickness ensuing for a baby, if there is a baby inside the self-driving car.


The famous or now somewhat infamous Baby On Board.

This kind of signage is a reminder that for AI self-driving cars, we need to consider the “special case” of what should be done when a baby is inside a self-driving car.

We cannot ignore the matter.

One of the more vexing issues will be whether a baby ought to be riding alone while inside a true AI self-driving car.

The initial reaction would be that the baby should definitely not be alone, but this is something as a society that we have yet to fully address.

Would you want your AI self-driving car to announce that you do have a baby on-board of your self-driving car?

We might see a resurgence of the fad. Via external e-billboards of the self-driving car you might announce it. You might have the V2V let other cars nearby know. Are you doing so for safety purposes or for the desire to brag or for what purpose? Or both?

Well, taking a somewhat lighter perspective and ending this piece on a softer note, we might have a variant of these kinds of signs, one that says AI On-Board.

That’s indeed something we ought to know about.

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Copyright © 2020 Dr. Lance B. Eliot

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Dr. Lance B. Eliot is a renowned global expert on AI, Stanford Fellow at Stanford University, was a professor at USC, headed an AI Lab, top exec at a major VC.

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