Driverless Cars Getting Embroiled Into Street Racing, Pedal To The Metal

Dr. Lance Eliot, AI Insider

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Autonomous self-driving cars need to know about street racing

Put the pedal to the medal. Be fast or be last.

You might find of idle interest that in Los Angeles alone there are about 700 illegal and completely unsanctioned road or street races each year (that’s based on the latest stats collected in 2017). In some cases the race arises on an impromptu basis, wherein one car driver challenges another car driver on a spur of the moment basis. In today’s world, the use of social media has allowed illegal road races to become much larger and semi-organized affairs. There are social media sites that you can post your intent to engage in an illegal road race and it will give a heads-up for people that want to come and watch or perhaps directly participate.

If you are under the assumption that only the drivers would be facing the chance of going to jail for breaking the law by undertaking an illegal road race, you might want to know that bystanders can also be arrested.

According to the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) here in California, anyone that aids in a speed contest, including those that are merely viewing it, observing it, watching it, or witnessing it, they too are violated the Speed Contest law (speed contest is another name given to the illegal road races).

In California, if convicted of participating in a speed race, you can be imprisoned for up to three months, which encompasses those doing the street racing and those “aiding or abetting” a street race. Plus, you can be fined up to $1,000, have your car impounded, and have your driver’s license revoked. I remember one such illegal road race here in Los Angeles that the police broke-up and arrested 109 people. That’s right, over one hundred people were busted for participating, of which only a small fraction of those people was actually racing a car.

Dangers of Unsanctioned Road Racing

Let’s consider some of the reasons why participating in an illegal road race is a bad idea (besides the obvious fact that it is illegal!).

The most obvious perhaps is that you can get injured or killed. It is relatively common that when a road race occurs, inevitably someone spins out of control or somehow loses control of their racing car and hits someone or something. Another racing car might get hit. Bystanders might get hit. Innocent pedestrians that had nothing to do with the road race might get hit. Other cars that had nothing to do with the road race might get hit.

In fact, one particular criticism of these illegal road races is that the drivers are often not skilled in driving a car at high-speeds and in a racing manner. These amateurs are wanna-be high-speed race drivers. They are cocky and think they can drive fast, when in reality they lack the skills and demeanor to do so properly. If they really were serious about wanting to race cars, they’d do so on a closed track in a sanctioned manner.

In proper and legal road racing on a closed track, the cars themselves are also specially prepared for sanctioned road racing purposes. These cars are outfitted with safety gear meant to protect the driver of the car. The cars might be augmented with special NOS (Nitrous Oxide System) capabilities to allow for the boosting of speed via increasing the power output of the engine. There might be special tires with extra thick tread. For the illegal road races, it is a wild west of however the racing car shows-up. It might be completely done up in a flimsy manner, and there have been many instances of these cars exploding by their own means.

Another factor to keep in mind is that a sanctioned road race on a closed track is going to presumably have a proper roadway set aside for a race. The road surface is likely well prepared for a race. When the illegal road races occur, they do so wherever they can find a place to do the race. This can include quiet neighborhoods that have families and children and pets, all of which might inadvertently get dragged into or run over by the road racers. The street itself will likely get torn up by the racing cars. If the road racers lose control of their cars, they can damage property such as light poles, fences, and so on.

Sometimes the illegal road races tempt fate in additional ways. For example, a so-called Potts Race involves the racing cars trying to drive through a multitude of successive intersections and the “loser” is the first racing car that comes to a stop at a red lighted traffic signal (the phrase of “Potts” comes from the aspect that these kinds of races were quite popular in Pottstown, Pennsylvania in the 1980s). You can imagine that other cars not involved in the road racing are all at risk of either getting struck by these maniac racers or those innocent and unaware drivers might accidentally run into one of the racing cars. A recipe for disaster, either way.

To further bolster the case for not doing illegal road races, I’ll mention too that often times drinking or drugs accompanies these underground events. The drivers might opt to get themselves jacked-up for the racing and the participants might do the same. Obviously, this adds to the chances that something untoward will arise.

Why do these presumably licensed drivers do these ill-advised and outright illegal road racing acts? As mentioned, it can be gang-related. It can also be out of boredom or having nothing else to do. It can be due to a bet or challenge to someone else. It can be as a result of a kind of pride of their own car and a desire to show-off what they have. There is a sub-culture aspect often to illegal road races, involving those that perhaps in-their-hearts love cars and racing, and maybe also like the idea of going to the edge. Some relish the lawbreaking aspects, even though they would assert that it is not much of an illegal act.

Large and Miniature Moments of Road Racing In Our Lives

When you think for a moment about your own driving habits, I’d bet that you do road racing in your daily driving, though it involves only miniature versions of the kind of road racing that I’ve been discussing so far.

You might be next to another car that seems determined to match your speed on the highway, an often dangerous situation since it denies both of you the possibility of readily switching lanes in an emergency, and so you “race” ahead of the other driver.

It certainly isn’t the kind of road racing that brings together a hundred spectators and gets posted onto social media. Instead, our day-to-day driving challenges will at times get us into a kind of road race with other drivers, whether we pay attention to it or not.

AI Autonomous Cars and Road Racing

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

At the Cybernetic AI Self-Driving Car Institute, we are developing AI software for self-driving cars. One aspect involves the AI being prepared for and able to contend with road racing.

Allow me to elaborate.

I’d like to first clarify and introduce the notion that there are varying levels of AI self-driving cars. The topmost level is considered Level 5. A Level 5 self-driving car is one that is being driven by the AI and there is no human driver involved.

For self-driving cars less than a Level 5, there must be a human driver present in the car. The human driver is currently considered the responsible party for the acts of the car. The AI and the human driver are co-sharing the driving task.

Another key aspect of AI self-driving cars is that they will be driving on our roadways in the midst of human driven cars too.

Returning to the topic of road racing, let’s explore what an AI self-driving car should know about this topic and what kinds of actions it should be able to undertake.

First, many AI developers might argue that an AI self-driving car does not need to know anything about road racing at all. They would say that since road racing or street racing is considered illegal, and since in their perspective an AI self-driving will always and only be driving in a legal manner, there is presumably no reason or basis for the AI self-driving car to be concerned about road racing.

That’s when I debunk their false belief.

Let’s start by acknowledging that there are going to be instances whereby an AI self-driving car will potentially be driving in an illegal manner. Never go faster than the posted speed limit is considered by some naïve AI developers consider as an inviolable legal restriction that shall not ever be disobeyed by an AI self-driving car. Hogwash.

We all know that there are times that you will inevitably be going faster than the posted speed limit. Suppose there is an emergency and you are rushing to the hospital? If that seems overly extreme as a use case, the prevailing speed on our freeways here in Southern California is typically well above the stated speed limit (when the freeways aren’t otherwise snarled) — is an AI self-driving car going to puddle along in the traffic stream and strictly be going no more than the speed limit?

So, I am arguing that simply because something is considered an illegal driving act, it is nonetheless still potentially a driving act that an AI self-driving car might need to undertake at some point in time. Therefore, the AI ought to know about it.

Act of Knowing Is Not the Same as Necessarily Doing

The act of knowing does not mean that the AI will necessarily undertake the illegal act. I say this because some of the AI developers would claim that if you give the AI system the ability to perform an illegal driving act, you are opening a Pandora’s box to the AI opting to routinely and wantonly perform illegal driving acts. I’ll say this again, hogwash. Knowing about something does not equate to doing it for the sake of doing it. Instead, it will be crucial that the AI be equally versed in when to perform such an act and when not to perform such an act.

Based on my remarks so far on this, at about this time I’m sure there are some AI developers that are wondering to themselves whether I am a proponent of AI self-driving cars participating in illegal road races. Am I that kind of a scofflaw that I want AI systems to encourage and abet speed contests?

No, I am not.

That being said, I think it is useful for the AI system to be wary of road racing and speed contests so that it can recognize one. Imagine that you are driving your car and you come upon a situation whereby you are able to assess the scene around you and hypothesize that a road race is brewing. As a defensive driver, I am guessing you would reason to try and get away from the area and tend to keep from getting immersed into the matter. The AI ought to be able to do the same.

Thus, it is vital that the AI be able to detect the surroundings and assess whether or not a road race is either brewing or maybe already underway. Furthermore, remember how I earlier mentioned that I saw the remnants of a potential road race by noticing cars that were going to one or that had come from one? Once again, the AI ought to be looking around for these kinds of telltale signs. It makes the AI be more defensive and drive in a manner to aim for heightened safety.

I suppose we ought to also consider another angle about the road racing topic. If we somehow restrict the AI by preventing it from ever being about to perform in a road race at all, what about sanctioned road races? Would we be preventing an AI self-driving car from participating in a closed track and legally abiding road race?

Even if you retort that it seems silly to think that anyone might want to see an AI self-driving car in a legal road race, I would hold that laughter if I were you. I’d bet that people will be eager to see AI self-driving cars race legally against human race drivers, plus they would likely enjoy seeing AI self-driving cars racing against other AI self-driving cars. Think of chess. We today have sophisticated chess playing AI systems that play against humans, and also play against other automated chess playing systems. Seems like we would have the same interest of pitting AI self-driving cars against humans and other self-driving cars.

Overall, I’d wager that we’ll want to have an AI system be able to carry on a road race but have some means to inhibit it and only allow it under certain circumstances. Does this imply that we are setting ourselves up for troubles? Some might assert that if the capability exists, an enterprising owner of an AI self-driving car might hack into it to get the AI to drive in illegal road races too. Sure, it is possible, but this brings up an even larger topic, namely if an owner can hack their AI self-driving car to do illegal road racing, the odds are that the owner can hack the self-driving car to do a lot of even worse things.

In that sense, we’d better be building the AI systems for self-driving cars with sufficient security and protections that such hacks are essentially impossible to undertake. In addition, if somehow such a hack manages to succeed, we presumably might want to have the AI self-report itself or have some other means to be able to disable the hacked AI.

AI Dealing with Road Racing Nearby the Autonomous Car

Here’s another subtle consideration on this matter of road racing and AI self-driving cars. There are the obvious illegal road races that involve hordes of spectators and the social media underground postings. I’ve also though mentioned the day-to-day road races that we all encounter, such as my example of being at a red light and having a car to my right that tried to race with me across the intersection when the light went green.

That is a form of everyday road racing. What would the AI do? If the AI system was not versed in how to handle such a situation, I’d bet that human drivers would realize that they can always outgun the AI by simply racing against it. This means that we’ll have human drivers that essentially know how to “prank” an AI self-driving car. It would be akin to knowing another driver that always drives in a certain way, and so you adjust your driving style to outwit that other dimwitted driver.

I don’t think that as a society we want our AI self-driving cars to be so easily bamboozled. I say this not because I somehow am worried that the AI will have hurt feelings, but instead because with the mix of human drivers and AI self-driving cars, those tricky human drivers will be trying to find an added edge over the AI self-driving cars. This can produce untoward driving behavior by the human drivers.

If I knew that another driver will always back down and let me exit from the freeway by simply cutting in front of the driver and causing them to slow down, you’d bet that’s what I’m going to start doing. If I knew that at an intersection, I could get the other driver to let me go ahead by outracing them forward, I’d likely do so all the time. In essence, human drivers will change their driving based on what they know about the inherent limitations of how the AI system is going to drive the self-driving car.

In a world in which human drivers only magically interact with AI self-driving cars, which are presumably programmed to act in the same manner all the time, it might work itself out okay. Keep in mind though that there are other human drivers on the road too. This means that a human driver that starts to play tricks on AI self-driving cars might very well carry those tricks into how they drive against other human drivers. Meanwhile, those responding human drivers aren’t going to necessarily do what the AI self-driving car does. The mishmash of AI driving styles of a restricted nature and the human wide-open styles, it will likely produce havoc on our roadways.

I know that this will encourage those pundits that will say this further provides evidence that we need to get human drivers off of the roads. I’ve already stated this is impractical. Some might say let’s separate the human drivers from the AI self-driving cars, doing so by having special lanes or roads that are for human drivers and others that are for AI self-driving cars. Sorry, this is also impractical. The infrastructure cost and effort would be tremendous, and it just doesn’t pencil out as sensible.

Via the use of Machine Learning (ML) and Deep Learning (DL), analyses of traffic and driving behavior can aid in enabling the AI to be able to contend with road racing.

Using Machine Learning and Using V2V

Using lots of traffic and driving data, it is feasible to devise Artificial Neural Network (ANN) models to be able to gauge when a road racing situation is developing. This also needs to be coupled with the AI action plans that provide the AI with driving tactics and strategies to deal with the matter.

There is also the use of V2V (vehicle-to-vehicle) electronic communications that can help in this matter.

If one AI self-driving car detects a brewing road race that might be of merit to forewarn other nearby AI self-driving cars, the AI could let them know via a V2V message. One twist on this would be to potentially notify the authorities such as the local police or highway patrol. There is though still a great deal to be decided about how much we want AI self-driving cars to tattle on what is happening on our roadways, and a concern that perhaps we’ll be going down the path of a 1984 Big Brother by the use of AI self-driving cars in this manner.


Should we keep the AI in-the-dark about road racing and not teach it, train it, or imbue it without any indication about road racing? Some might say we should not let the genie out of the bottle, but I would say that it is narrow thinking at-best to assume you would want the AI to be blind to the nature of road racing. I’d prefer that the AI is versed in it, being able to detect when it happens, and be able to contend with it if forced into a road racing circumstance.

I would also suggest that there will unequivocally be a need for the AI to have road racing prowess. This will help the AI to deal with day-to-day miniature road racing that happens as part of the mix of human drivers and AI self-driving cars on the roads. It would seem too that humans will relish wanting to see AI self-driving cars that can legally race, doing so in the right situations and with the proper safety precautions undertaken.

Movies like “The Fast and the Furious” have glorified illegal street racing and you can anticipate that our culture will continue to foster that kind of driving approach. If humans are going to be fast and furious, let’s make sure that the AI can be fast when needed, and of course we ought to skip the part whereby the AI becomes furious. Perhaps the movies about AI self-driving cars will be entitled “The Fast and the Faster” and we’ll have eliminated the furious aspect of driving in speed contests.

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Copyright © 2019 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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