Misc OpenPilot notes after a 3,000 mile road trip (Part 2)

I’m clever, clever enough to title my last post as Part 1 so I’d be forced to write a Part 2 before moving onto other topics. I’ll focus more on the human factor of car autonomy for this post.

We decided to drive from Fort Meyers, FL to Indianapolis, IN all in one shot. It ended up being a ~20 hour drive, ~1,100 miles. It’s the longest, most exhausting drive I’ve ever been on, and it wouldn’t have been possible without OpenPilot.

Some of the drive data

Vehicle autonomy is interesting. On one hand, it frees the human from having to perform many observations and actions a second. On the other, it could lull you into a mindset of reduced situational awareness. There is no doubt that mental and physical fatigue is reduced with autonomy, but I feel as if it comes at a cost.

Look closely on the left. There’s a car stopped, blocking the two left lanes

It only takes a second any time that you are driving to be involved in a fatal accident. The above video was during a test loop of OpenPilot on the interstate. Earlier on that drive, I was messing about with my cell phone to dial in live-tuning settings for PID, my awareness was not on the road.

OpenPilot, at the time, did not have stopped vehicle detection, and even if it did on this drive, it’s unlikely that vision and radar would have picked up a black car at night, and a side profile at that. The collision would have been catastrophic, possibly fatal at 75MPH for not only me, but the driver of the spun out car.

Luckily, there was other traffic ahead and I noticed the brake lights of the cars ahead, causing me to pay attention. Even then, the vehicle was difficult to spot. Notice the swerving semi by the end of the video.

Do a favor for me and stop reading this to consider, how do you perceive OpenPilot? Is it some wizbang self-driving thing that you look for opportunities to share with friends and family at every opportunity? Be honest, do you pay less attention and/or play with your car’s infotainment system or cell phone while OP is engaged? Do you frequently drive with your hands off, and away from the steering wheel?

If your sentiment is anything other than an enhanced cruise control system, you are gravely mistaken, and will be for a long time as “self driving” is much, much further out.

Why?

  • Radar can’t detect static objects, like stopped cars. Otherwise, every single object like sign posts and telephone poles, manhole covers would cause your brakes to slam on.
  • Vision radar (new in 0.6.x) CAN detect stopped cars, but shouldn’t be relied upon. The training set isn’t fit to detect stopped cars in all situations, and certainly not situations like where a kid on a bicycle darts in front of your car (true story).
  • The cameras in our obsolete phones that run OP can often defocus and not see anything at all in front of you, especially when it’s raining (I had several times where OP focused on the rain beads on the windshield and not the road).
  • OP currently relies upon lane lines, with some limited “laneless” path prediction. Count on slamming into a concrete barrier if you go through a construction zone and lane lines are misidentified (and you are fucking around, staring at your crotch on your phone).

The most dangerous aspect of OpenPilot is how good it is, and how much further it has improved, and will improve. It’s to the point where you can achieve a ~80% engagement rate over 3,000 miles; and it’s the slim chance that something CAN go wrong with OP engaged that’ll get you. Humans are interesting creatures. If you drive a few thousand miles, many months with OpenPilot and it acts a certain way all other times, at what point do you loose the perception that OP could not detect a stopped car ahead of you (and you just so happen to be playing on your cellphone)?

At what point do you sit back and slip into pure observation, no longer interfacing with the car actively? Or, what if you come across a situation on the interstate where a car is spun out ahead of you and a snap judgement will be the only thing that saves you? A few people have fallen asleep with OP engaged, one woke up some hours later and was fine. The other smashed into the car in front of them, the accelerator still applying gas after he crashed into them.

One thing became immediately apparent to me. The last few hours of the drive, neither of us were fit to be driving. Our awareness was lapsed due to fatigue, our eyes tired, I was even a little dizzy. Still, we pressed on. It came to the point where it felt dangerous to NOT have OpenPilot engaged as it was driving better than I was.

I don’t want to come across as overly alarmist, but I am trying to scare you a little. You must remain ready, and willing to take over controls at any moment, especially when driving with OpenPilot. You must know your limits and be able to make a judgment call to find somewhere to get some rest, it’ll creep up on you, trust me.

With all of that said, I still greatly enjoy OpenPilot. I wouldn’t have preferred the trip without it. However, one must remain aware, and engaged with their vehicle, ready to take over at a moment’s notice. My advice? Disengage OP and drive yourself every so often to stay acquainted with the car’s controls, especially when tired. It’ll become immediately apparent just how disoriented you are at any given moment.

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