Driver Killed By His Own Car Door While Waiting In Line At Fast-Food Drive-Thru, Providing Cautionary Insights For AI Self-Driving Cars
A recent news story is nearly unfathomable.
On the other hand, the sadly dire incident is something that could happen to just about any of us and proffers some important hindsight lessons.
First, imagine that you are in your car and decide to fulfill your growling stomach by a quick drive-thru at a local fast-food eatery. It seems like there are drive-thru options galore these days. You can get a hamburger and fries, or a delicious bucket of chicken wings, or scrumptious tacos, etc.
No need to even get out of your vehicle.
All you need to do is drive up to an ordering screen, place your order, drive forward to make payment, and then get your food. After that, you are on your way and only used up perhaps five minutes of your precious time to obtain some desired nourishment (research indicates the average time waiting in line at a drive-thru is about 4.5 minutes).
I’d bet that many of you have found yourself in a somewhat awkward predicament at times when you might be in the drive-thru line and something drops out your driver’s side window. It has happened to me numerous times.
For example, when the eatery food server hands me my meal, there is occasionally a faulty handoff involved. The person might drop packets of ketchup or taco sauce that land on the ground, sitting just between my car and the edge of the drive-thru window building. Or at times a straw is dropped. I am usually tempted to open my car door and retrieve the fallen items, especially if it is perhaps my fault for not having grasped them firmly when they were handed over to me.
Usually, the food server says not to worry and that I shouldn’t be bothered to try and grab up the fallen items. The person hands over another set and the matter is concluded. You can oftentimes see fallen debris when you are waiting in line and ready to approach the food-providing window. Obviously, these same handoff issues occur with some frequency.
Another variation on this notion is the circumstances involving a car that has a driver-side window that won’t open. You might not have seen this in action. On rare occasions, I’ll be in line and notice that the car ahead of me is opening its car door. I overhear the driver explaining to the food server that their car door window won’t roll down. I’m sure this is a source of embarrassment and certainly makes using a drive-thru a contortionist effort.
Part of the difficulty of opening a car door while in a drive-thru line is that you are usually pinched for space once you get up to the payment or food service window. At that juncture, your car is just a few inches away from the wall of the building. You probably have the most marginal of latitude about opening your car door.
I know this too because I tried to reach out and get some fallen secret sauce packets one time. The food server seemed to be in a rush and I wasn’t sure that they would bring me any replacement packets. So, I figured it would be a simple matter of opening my car door to retrieve them.
Darned if my car door slightly banged against the wall. Scratching my car for a few packets of secret sauce was not very astute on my part. Also, I then observed that a pole was situated at the window. I hadn’t especially noticed this before. Upon reflection though, I realize that likely others had tried to open their car doors and the manager of the eatery realized it would be prudent to put a post there.
This made things abundantly clear that you would not have sufficient clearance to fully open your car door. The logic was likely too that if a car veered toward the building, the post would prevent the building from getting damaged. The cost to replace a post would assuredly be less than the cost of repairing the wall of the building (and be a much sturdier guard, as it were).
Here’s a question for you.
When you reach the payment window or the order receiving window at a drive-thru, do you put your car in Park or do you remain in Drive?
As far as I can tell, it seems like most people continue to keep their car in Drive. You have your foot on the brakes to make sure you remain in a firm position. No need to shift the car into the Park position since you know that momentarily you will be driving away from the eatery. Of course, if it seems that the wait time is going to be excessive, you might decide to prudently put your vehicle into Park.
I suggest this is a prudent action because you can inadvertently readily lift your foot from the brakes and have your car creep or lurch forward. Any long waiting time can increase the odds that you might relax your leg or foot. The safest approach would be to shift into Park. You can then be less anxious about any untoward sudden movement forward.
The normal course of things is that you keep your car in Drive the entire time of the drive-thru trek.
You use your brakes to momentarily come to a halt at the ordering screen. You then continue forward by releasing the pressure on the brake pedal. The car proceeds forward by the axiomatic act of being in Drive. The brakes are used again to come to a stop at the payment window. Easing up on the brakes, you proceed to the order pick-up window. While there, you continue to keep the brakes depressed and await your food.
That’s the on-and-off-again effort of driving in a drive-thru, whereby you leave the car entirely in Drive and judiciously use your brakes to come to those periodic and temporary stops or halts. The car is ready to move ahead at all times. Only your overt efforts are keeping that movement in check.
What sometimes catches my eye are those people in line that feel they need to back up for one reason or another. A driver might overshoot the payment window and decide that they need to put their vehicle in reverse. They back up a foot or two. This aligns their vehicle and their car door window with the window of the eatery.
This catches my eye due to the potential danger of the person forgetting that they have their car in reverse. You probably know what I mean by this. The driver is so anxious about backing up that once they get aligned, they merely have their foot on their brakes. Meanwhile, the reverse or backup lights on the rear of their car are still illuminated.
You can plainly see that they are in reverse. What you don’t know is whether they realize they are still in reverse. The angst is that they will try to move forward by rapidly using the accelerator pedal, which in turn will cause the car to zip backward towards you.
It is an ominous freak accident just waiting to happen.
Anyway, all told, you can perhaps understand that driving in a drive-thru has a lot more nuances to it than you might otherwise have considered. Believe it or not, some driver training classes include the act of navigating a drive-thru in their on-the-road exercises. This makes abundant sense. A newbie driver ought to learn the ropes of how to best maneuver in a drive-thru.
Using a drive-thru becomes secondary in nature to all of us after a while.
I admit that I’ve done more than probably my share of eatery drive-thru journeys, though my excuse is that for most of my working career I’ve made extensive use of my car. Long commutes and having to make vital visits all across town means that there is a lot of time spent inside the vehicle. To minimize any lost time for merely getting food, those fast-food drive-thru operations are a handy-dandy option, that’s for sure.
A quirk of fate though led to a recent heartbreaking incident at a McDonald’s that is shocking and nearly unimaginable. Though it took place at a McDonald’s, the manner of what occurred could happen at nearly any drive-thru anywhere and at any time. For that reason, I am not playing up the McDonald’s aspect, which some news reports did.
Consider this as something that any kind of drive-thru operation might incur.
Also, please prepare yourself accordingly for what I am about to describe.
A man was driving in the drive-thru of a McDonald’s and came up the payment window. Apparently, his payment card dropped as he was extending it to the clerk. This is certainly unlike dropping a ketchup packet or a straw. Your first inclination would be that you need to pick up your payment card, right away.
He opened his car door and started to reach out to retrieve the payment card that was now laying on the pavement. Unfortunately, as he made this outreach, his foot must have come off the brake pedal.
The car was still in Drive. The vehicle lurched forward.
Skip past the next few paragraphs if you are already queasy about what occurred.
The exterior of the partially open car door rubbed up against the structural portion of the eatery. The car door then sought to swing shut due to the dual shoving forces entailing the car wanting to move forward and being pinned against the eatery. Meanwhile, the driver was leaning out the partially open car door. He ended up getting crushed by the car door as it is being shoved closed by the forces of the structural pinning and the vehicle wanting to move forward. He passed away at the scene.
Words cannot convey the maddening and mindbending consequence of the matter.
A police spokesperson later articulated something that we all know in our hearts, namely that this was a tragic scenario and beyond everyday comprehension. The man was 42 years old. His widow and their son and daughter have set up a fundraising page online. Friends and relatives indicated that he was a doting father and loving husband. He worked as an elevator mechanic.
Some of the news reports pointed out the unusual circumstance of essentially getting killed by one’s own car. This was described variously as an extraordinary outlier or as a freak accident.
Though it is decidedly highly unusual, similar instances have been reported in the past. Plus, when you consider how this can happen, it would almost seem surprising that it hasn’t happened more often. There you are, in line at a drive-thru, and the tendency is to keep your car in gear the entire time. Anyone that opts to open their car door could do so almost reflexively and not consider the need to put their vehicle in Park.
I suppose none of us expects though to somehow get pinned if their foot does slide off the brake pedal. You would likely assume that you could immediately lean back into your car seat and step on the brakes. It just doesn’t seem feasible that you would be unable to prevent the car from moving forward and at the same time get utterly jammed in the partially open car door passageway.
Suppose though that there was no one in the driver’s seat. In theory, this would imply that no driver could get themselves into such an untoward posture.
What I’m referring to is AI-based true self-driving cars.
Note that there isn’t a human driver involved in a true self-driving car. Keep in mind that true self-driving cars are driven via an AI driving system. There isn’t a need for a human driver at the wheel, and nor is there a provision for a human to drive the vehicle. For my extensive and ongoing coverage of Autonomous Vehicles (AVs) and especially self-driving cars, see the link here.
Here’s an intriguing question that is worth pondering: What can the news story about the unfortunate drive-thru incident inform us about the advent of AI-based true self-driving cars?
I’d like to first further clarify what is meant when I refer to true self-driving cars.
Understanding The Levels Of Self-Driving Cars
As a clarification, true self-driving cars are ones that the AI drives the car entirely on its own and there isn’t any human assistance during the driving task.
These driverless vehicles are considered Level 4 and Level 5 (see my explanation at this link here), while a car that requires a human driver to co-share the driving effort is usually considered at Level 2 or Level 3. The cars that co-share the driving task are described as being semi-autonomous, and typically contain a variety of automated add-on’s that are referred to as ADAS (Advanced Driver-Assistance Systems).
There is not yet a true self-driving car at Level 5, which we don’t yet even know if this will be possible to achieve, and nor how long it will take to get there.
Meanwhile, the Level 4 efforts are gradually trying to get some traction by undergoing very narrow and selective public roadway trials, though there is controversy over whether this testing should be allowed per se (we are all life-or-death guinea pigs in an experiment taking place on our highways and byways, some contend, see my coverage at this link here).
Since semi-autonomous cars require a human driver, the adoption of those types of cars won’t be markedly different than driving conventional vehicles, so there’s not much new per se to cover about them on this topic (though, as you’ll see in a moment, the points next made are generally applicable).
For semi-autonomous cars, it is important that the public needs to be forewarned about a disturbing aspect that’s been arising lately, namely that despite those human drivers that keep posting videos of themselves falling asleep at the wheel of a Level 2 or Level 3 car, we all need to avoid being misled into believing that the driver can take away their attention from the driving task while driving a semi-autonomous car.
You are the responsible party for the driving actions of the vehicle, regardless of how much automation might be tossed into a Level 2 or Level 3.
Self-Driving Cars And Opening Of The Car Doors
For Level 4 and Level 5 true self-driving vehicles, there won’t be a human driver involved in the driving task.
All occupants will be passengers.
The AI is doing the driving.
One aspect to immediately discuss entails the fact that the AI involved in today’s AI driving systems is not sentient. In other words, the AI is altogether a collective of computer-based programming and algorithms, and most assuredly not able to reason in the same manner that humans can.
Why is this added emphasis about the AI not being sentient?
Because I want to underscore that when discussing the role of the AI driving system, I am not ascribing human qualities to the AI. Please be aware that there is an ongoing and dangerous tendency these days to anthropomorphize AI. In essence, people are assigning human-like sentience to today’s AI, despite the undeniable and inarguable fact that no such AI exists as yet.
With that clarification, you can envision that the AI driving system won’t natively somehow “know” about the facets of driving. Driving and all that it entails will need to be programmed as part of the hardware and software of the self-driving car.
Let’s dive into the myriad of aspects that come to play on this topic.
First, it is important to realize that not all AI self-driving cars are the same. Each automaker and self-driving tech firm is taking its own approach to devising self-driving cars. As such, it is difficult to make sweeping statements about what AI driving systems will do or not do.
Furthermore, whenever stating that an AI driving system doesn’t do some particular thing, this can, later on, be overtaken by developers that in fact program the computer to do that very thing. Step by step, AI driving systems are being gradually improved and extended. An existing limitation today might no longer exist in a future iteration or version of the system.
I trust that provides a sufficient litany of caveats to underlie what I am about to relate.
Let’s go ahead and assume that there isn’t a human at the wheel of a true self-driving car.
This implies that we could never again have an incident involving a human driver that opened a car door whilst at a drive-thru and then inadvertently allowed the car to move ahead, pinning them injuriously or fatally so.
Yes, by definition, that would seem to be the case and we would not ever have that kind of an occurrence.
But wait for a second, other considerations come to the fore.
There could be passengers inside the self-driving car. Those passengers might ask the AI driving system to route the self-driving car through a drive-thru. I’ve repeatedly predicted that this is going to be a commonly requested driving task and that the programming of the AI driving systems will inevitably and inexorably need to include this particular driving chore (see my column coverage).
Few of today’s self-driving cars have this specific driving action capability programmed into them.
As an aside, you might be tempted to assume that if a self-driving car can drive down a neighborhood street and take you to the local grocery that it should ergo be able to navigate a drive-thru operation, easy-peasy. I can see why you might make that assumption.
It is not an assumption though that is worth betting on.
There is a lot of driving finesse involved in a drive-thru.
As earlier mentioned, newbie human drivers can have difficulty at first with this type of driving effort. AI driving systems are not yet able to generalize and use their driving capabilities for a variety of driving settings. By and large, the AI driving systems are programmed for the classic point A to point B kind of driving. This involves using conventional roads and abundantly apparent pathways.
Revisit the prior aspects about driving at a drive-thru.
The autonomous vehicle would need to determine where to stop the car in terms of allowing a passenger to vocalize their order. The AI driving system would need to ascertain when to continue forward. It would need to stop at the right spot at the payment window. It would need to proceed and then stop at the order receiving window. Once the order has been handed over to the passenger, the AI driving system would need to proceed onward with the driving journey.
A smarmy retort is that the passenger could simply tell the AI driving system to start and stop. Yes, that is a possibility. This might be used as a quick-and-dirty stopgap, but will be quite unsatisfying in the long term.
You can almost in your mind envision a comical stage play that this could produce. The passenger says stop and the AI driving system instantaneously does so, perhaps a few feet still away from where the person really wanted the halt to occur. Move ahead a few inches, the person says. The AI driving system complies. Turns out that now the self-driving car is further ahead of the window and the person has to ask the AI driving system to back up.
This would be exasperating.
Now, the smarmy retort to this quandary is that the AI ought to be more flexible and be able to detect where it needs to place the self-driving car. The video cameras of the self-driving car could be used to detect where the ordering screen is. The AI driving system ought to be programmed to position precisely in front of that screen. And so on.
You are absolutely right about that. But realize that the AI needs to be programmed for that purpose. It is either directly programmed by AI developers or might be “taught” via the use of Machine Learning (ML) and Deep Learning (DL).
None of that is an especially high priority for today’s automakers and self-driving tech firms. The public and society at large want self-driving cars that can go from point A to point B, safely, and that is the top priority. Dealing with a drive-thru is a low priority in comparison. Some would classify it as an edge or corner case, meaning that it is not at the core of what needs to be put together and can wait until someday in the future to be dealt with.
For more about edge cases and the long-tail problem facing self-driving cars, see my discussion at this link here.
Set aside for the moment this tangent about getting AI driving systems to cope with drive-thru navigation. Concentrate instead on something related to the entire matter and that has larger importance.
Allow me a moment to properly set the scene.
Suppose a self-driving car is able to drive in a drive-thru and has been prepared for that specialized task. Upon entering the drive-thru line, the self-driving car comes up to the payment window. Who will pay for the food? I know that some of you are yelling aloud that there should be no need to extend a physical payment card to someone at the window. All of this ought to be done electronically. The passenger should order via a smartphone app. The passenger should pay via the app. The only instance of having to open a window would be to receive the food.
I could argue that not everyone is going to convert entirely over to electronic ordering. For many years to come, likely decades, there will still be the manual effort of handing over a payment card. That’s reality.
I’ll somewhat put that aside and shift attention to getting the food.
I trust that we all agree that this is a moment when the window is going to be opened on the self-driving car. Unless we, later on, have other means to handle the handover of the food, this is the way things will be. As an aside, I’ve discussed that we will have drones that deliver fast food to self-driving cars, in which case there might be another car-provided portal through which the food would be handed to the passengers, see my analysis at this link here.
What I am trying to aim you toward is the possibility that a passenger might want to open the door of the self-driving car.
During the handover of the food, imagine that the mustard packets fall to the floor. The passenger decides they will open the car door to retrieve the fallen packets.
Could this then endanger the passenger?
One supposes that if the self-driving car is still in Drive, and the passenger opens the door, we have a dicey situation in hand. Untoward things could happen.
The obvious solution is that the moment a passenger opens the car door, the AI driving system shifts into Park and stops the autonomous vehicle from moving ahead. Some would even insist that the car doors can never be opened by a passenger unless the AI driving system allows the person to do so.
In essence, some believe that you ought to be locked inside a self-driving car and only be able to open the doors if the AI permits you to do so. This is equivalent to those child locks that are on some of today’s cars.
I realize that for many AI developers this is the easiest and best way to solve the problem of the open-the-door issue facing the advent of self-driving cars. Just always keep the doors locked and closed. Only when a person requests will the AI unlock the doors and allow the doors to be opened.
Do you really think that passengers inside self-driving cars are going to be delighted at this kind of stringent approach?
I doubt it.
Being locked inside a self-driving car and having no means of ready exit other than by pleading with the AI driving system is not something that gives much confidence to the average person. The AI might refuse to unlock and allow the doors to be opened. Maybe the AI is right, maybe the AI is wrong. It has no semblance of sentience or common-sense. For my further detailed coverage on this conundrum, see the link here.
Okay, pundits say, the passenger can invoke a remote agent of the fleet that is overseeing the self-driving cars. The remote agent would be able to command the AI to unlock and open the doors.
Whoa, this assumes that an electronic remote communications capability will flawlessly work in any conditions whenever someone wants to get out of the self-driving car. You also need to include the amount of time that this would take. In an emergency, and if you were in dire straits, this option would seem untenable.
I’m using this drive-thru topic to bring up a rather puzzling problem that we are all going to grapple with due to the advent of AI-based true self-driving cars.
Passengers are customarily allowed to open car doors when they are in a human-driven ridesharing vehicle or whenever a human is at the wheel. We take for granted that the human driver will know when passengers ought to be opening doors and when they should not. Presumably, the behavior of passengers is somewhat modulated due to the presence of the human driver.
For an AI self-driving car, there isn’t a human at the wheel. This means that there is no longer an obvious and always “supervising” influence inside the self-driving car.
When adults go for a ride in a self-driving car, what latitude should be allowed about being able to open a car door? Some assert that there should be no restrictions whatsoever. Others argue that the lack of some constraints on opening the car door could lead to terrible situations involving passengers that tried to get out when they should not be doing so, such as while on a freeway, etc.
A ton of twists and turns exist on this thorny topic.
For example, what will we do about children that ride alone in a self-driving car and for which no adult is present? I’m sure you are leaning toward insisting that the car doors remain locked and closed. This seems right on the surface of things, but it does have some adverse consequences, see my explanation at this link here.
Dealing with car doors is gradually going to become a big thing. We don’t give it much thought nowadays. The emergence of true self-driving cars will bring forth this vexing conundrum.
We should be thinking about it now and not wait and act surprised that no one thought of such issues. I am thinking about the matter, as are other insiders, and we need a wider array of input and discussion that will make sure that we do not get caught unawares on what needs to be done.
What seems like a potential outlier matter can have quite alarming consequences.