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Mighty Dust Storm Drifting Toward Southeastern U.S., Even Self-Driving Cars To Be Flummoxed

Meteorologists are closely following some mega-sized dust plumes that are slowly drifting from the Sahara Desert and for which those murky clouds have already descended upon the normally scenic Caribbean islands, causing tourists and locals alike to find themselves immersed in the air stifling stuff.

Recent pictures were taken of the usual blue skies and wide ocean expanses at islands such as St. Barth’s and Antigua and vividly showcased a nasty blanket of dust as far as the eye can see. Forget about those breathtaking ocean views and instead hold your breath to keep from inhaling the swath of gagging dust particles.

In Barbados, a severe dust haze warning was raised by authorities and urged special caution for those with respiratory difficulties, beseeching them to stay inside and protect themselves from the unseemly muck.

The unwelcome dust is already edging toward southern Florida, aiming soon to relentlessly spread throughout Texas and much of the southeastern United States.

Some that live in those regions are already accustomed to the Saharan Air Layer (SAL) oozing over to the U.S. on an annual basis and particularly during the summer months. You can place the blame on either favorable or unfavorable Trade Winds that bring this dusty influx to our shores.

Beware the invasion of the creeping dust.

The good news, if you want a happy face version of the dustup, will be a lot of quite colorful sunrises and sunsets. This is due to how the dust and the light of the sun interact in the atmosphere, often creating some of the most eye-catching and snapshot worthy moments of the year.

It is hard to find much other joy in the majestic dust balls.

Sure, you might rejoice in the scientific theory that there are crucial nutrients embedded in the Saharan launched soil, and by being brought over via the prevailing winds this unexpected nourishment enriches the coral reefs off of Florida and the Bahamas.

That’s something nice.

On the other hand, other scientists argue that this same dust is just as likely to harm the coral reefs, possibly shedding contaminants from the agriculturally treated desert soil and that even the untainted earthen materials might be over-fertilizing the coral waters to produce ungainly and unwanted algae blooms.

Seems like vast plumes of dust are a hard phenomenon to relish.

Well, there is a big reason to hope for massive dust clouds, namely they are known for being hurricane wreckers.

The thick dust in the air seems to cut down on the number and potency of hurricanes. The stark aridness brought by the dust is known to undermine the development and accumulation of moisture that is needed as a precept for hurricane formulations. Without the wetness, there are typically fewer hurricanes and they are less ferocious than might otherwise be the case.

Which would you choose, tons of dust swirling in the air and surrounding you like an unsightly blanket (minus hurricanes), or having perfectly clear skies that are then accompanied by horrendous hurricanes?

I suppose you prefer clear skies and no hurricanes, though that does not seem to be an available option, sorry to say.

In any case, there is definitely a lot of talk about this latest dust plume and the International Space Station is likewise keeping tabs on the enormous cloud, including issuing tweets by on-board astronauts as they marvel at the magnitude of this particular dust ball flare-up.

Regrettably, get ready to shelter in place again for those of you that have already been doing so, just when you optimistically thought it might be feasible to venture back outside.

Besides the obvious health consequences of these dust storms, there are other repercussions too.

Have you ever driven your car in a dust storm?

If not, you are lucky to have avoided the agony and abject fear that goes along with trying to drive in thick layers of flying soil.

Your visibility is cut way down.

Pedestrians seem to abruptly appear out of nowhere, and you are often suddenly at the rear bumper of the car ahead of you, doing so without any visible realization beforehand.

Attempts to use your windshield wipers are not effective and you quickly drain the windshield wiper fluid stored in the engine compartment tank.

In addition to the driving difficulties, your car doesn’t like dust either.

An engine can potentially seize-up if the dust were to get fully under-the-hood, plus the odds are that you are going to have to do some hefty maintenance shortly after any lengthy dust driving journeys.

As for the paint on the car, might as well start looking to see if Al’s paint-and-body shop is going to be open for business since you will be needing a touch-up or two.

Anyway, if the car can withstand the dust difficulties, the mainstay of concern is that anyone driving in dust storms is heightening their risk of getting into a car crash. Car crashes invariably are accompanied by concomitant injuries and fatalities.

People are supposed to drive slowly and cautiously in dust storms.

Oddly, ironically perhaps, it seems that a segment of drivers believes in doing just the opposite. They seem to think that if you drive faster, you are better off. Presumably, their logic is that you will get through the dust storm in less time and therefore have less overall roadway threat exposures. This might appear to be compelling logic, but it is without sufficient merit and you ought to slow down and be driving carefully, or preferably not get on the road at all during a dust storm.

I’m sure that some that have driven quickly and survived many dust storms while driving at rocket-like speeds are going to carp and claim they are living proof that going faster is a sound approach. My sympathies to those that encounter these “free spirit” drivers and I can only hope that whatever miracle has been aiding them so far will continue during their continued and crazed driving sprints.

Speaking of driving, we might eventually see the day that there are either no human drivers or certainly a less-so number of human drivers on the highways and byways, coming about due to the advent of self-driving cars.

You might be wondering how self-driving cars might fare when faced with dust storms.

That brings up this interesting question: Will AI-based true self-driving cars be able to cope with dust storms and how will they perform in contrast to human-driven cars?

Let’s unpack the matter and see.

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 a 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 a 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 point out, see my indication 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 Dealing With Dust Storms

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.

In terms of dust storms, do not falsely assume that the AI is going to be foolproof and always be able to drive in the thick muck of swirling soil.

This is worth mentioning because some recent polls and surveys seem to suggest that the public’s understanding of self-driving cars is that the AI can drive the vehicle anywhere and everywhere, regardless of the circumstances or surroundings (for my review of various surveys, see the link here).

Keep in mind that part of the core principles about AI self-driving cars is that they are intended to be able to drive in the same realms that humans can drive. If a proficient human driver was unable to drive in a given setting, there is no expectation that an AI self-driving car can otherwise do so.

Note that this doesn’t mean that it isn’t still possible for the AI self-driving car to drive in those instances, but it is not considered a “requirement” per se that it is supposed to be able to do so. Also, people are often shocked to discover that the AI standardized driving levels do not include off-road driving within their scope, as such, there is no requirement or obligation for an AI self-driving car to be able to drive in off-road settings (see my explanation at this link here).

One pet peeve that I have repeatedly pressed too is the tendency for some to inappropriately refer to AI driving systems as being “superhuman” and for which this is decidedly misleading and outright a dangerous impression to create (for my qualms on this, including Elon Musk referring to Tesla’s Autopilot as so-called superhuman, see this link here).

At this time, AI driving systems are less capable than humans in various ways, and in other ways potentially better, but they are not altogether above and beyond human driving.

We have a long way to go on that goal.

Okay, so the first point is that we should not and cannot expect that AI self-driving cars will necessarily be able to drive in dust storms.

You might be puzzled that they would ever be unable to do so, since they are jampacked with state-of-the-art sensors including specialized cameras, radar, LIDAR, thermal imaging, ultrasonic units, and so on.

With all that high-tech gear it would seem they must be able to deal with some dust in the air.

Sorry, the dust can be just as beguiling to the AI as it is to us, humans.

You might be aware that Waymo is testing their self-driving cars in Phoenix, Arizona, which is a desert-based area that from time-to-time has dust storms. When dust storms become large enough, scientists refer to those sizable dust storms as a haboob. The Phoenix valley has seen some doozie of haboob’s, sometimes reaching up to several thousand feet high and roaming across hundreds of square miles.

For a short video of a Waymo self-driving vehicle in an Arizona dust storm, take a look at the link here.

Here’s what happens when a self-driving car tries to undertake driving in a severe dust storm.

First, the camera is going to be less capable of detecting the roadway scene due to the confluence of dust particles in the air. This obscuring of the visual aspects of driving is about the same as when a human is driving a car, namely, it is darned hard to see what is out and about.

You could try to argue that the cameras are solely intended to capture visual images and video, and not prone to distraction as a human might be when eyeing their surroundings, and thus the cameras are a better bet than a human with their eyeballs.

Also, presumably, the AI is not struck by any fear about the driving task, which a human might become consumed with and therefore be less attentive to the road and more likely to make a driving mistake in a terrifying situation.

Yes, those are reasons to vote for the cameras as handy for dealing with a dust storm.

On the other hand, those cameras have lenses, and if the lenses get scratched or marred by the darting dust, you suddenly have a camera that no longer has a fully viable image to make use of. The camera could become entirely blotted by a smush of dirt and dust, becoming essentially blind to the road around it.

A human driver is presumably inside a car and less likely to get dust into their eyes, though certainly if they open a side window to try and look outside the vehicle or otherwise allow the dust to get in, you have a chance that the human driver might get muck in their eyes too.  Recall too that the windshield can be difficult to keep clear.

In any case, by visual means alone, neither the AI and nor a human can see as far ahead, they cannot see what might be hidden at the side of the road, they might not realize a pedestrian is walking across the road or about to enter into the road, and so on.

Prudently, the AI is usually programmed to slow down and drive cautiously in any setting whereby the cameras are being visually constrained.

Of course, most self-driving cars are already crafted to drive gingerly, to begin with (such as not going above the speed limit and coming to complete stops and not do rolling stops, etc.), but they might sometimes include added provisions for special circumstances such as dust storms, heavy fog, and other weather situations.

This brings up another essential aspect of self-driving cars, consisting of their ODD (Operational Design Domain).

In the case of Level 4 self-driving cars, an automaker or self-driving tech firm is supposed to define an ODD that delineates the situations that are suitable for their AI driving system to be utilized.

For example, an ODD might be that the AI driving system is intended to properly operate during daylight and in non-rainy conditions. If it begins to rain, the AI is supposed to detect this facet and then realize that its ODD is being exceeded, in which case it should safely come to a halt and wait until the ODD conditions revert into its scope (for more details about ODDs, see my indication at this link here).

The main effort by most of the existing self-driving car entities is to establish and deploy their vehicles in rather everyday conditions and then deal with extraordinary conditions later on, once they have sufficiently dealt with the day-to-day driving tasks.

This is worthwhile mentioning since a dust storm would be most likely considered outside the ODD of today’s self-driving cars, considered an outlier weather condition that is not a high priority right now, sometimes referred to as an edge or corner case.

All told, this means that if you were in a self-driving car during a dust storm, the odds are that the AI was not yet crafted to cope with the dust storm from a driving perspective, and thus it would rather quickly alert that it was going to safely pull over and wait out the conditions.

We might expect human drivers to do the same.

In other words, do not try driving in a bad dust storm and instead find a safe place to park and wait out the conditions.

Furthermore, we would likely advise to not even start a driving journey if it is known or likely that a dust storm is going to be occurring somewhere during your driving journey. Don’t get on the road until the roadway conditions are amenable to safe driving.

Recall that earlier I mentioned that self-driving cars are usually loaded with a bunch of different kinds of sensors.

In theory, if the cameras are obscured or having difficulties, the AI can be using the other sensors to try and make up for the visual impairments.

The whole notion of MSDF (Multi-Sensor Data Fusion) is that the AI can bring together disparate data from different types of sensors, arrayed around the perimeter of the car, and fuse the collected data to try and arrive at a comprehensive and timely indication of what is taking place outside of the vehicle.

Despite that holistic approach, realize that in a rowdy dust storm the radar and LIDAR are likely to also have difficulties in sensing what is going on, partially due to the multitude of floating particles that can cause all sorts of added noise, misdirected reflections, and cause other problematic issues.

Thus, though having a variety of sensory types is an advantage, it does not guarantee that a dust storm can be dealt with.


Would you like a mind-bender?

There are AI Ethics related considerations that arise in these kinds of driving situations.

You are needing to get to the doctor’s office urgently and would normally get into your car and hurriedly drive there.

Suppose the only cars available are self-driving cars.

So, you summon a self-driving car and get in, telling the AI via its Natural Language Processing (NLP) the address of your doctor.

The AI calculates that there is a dust storm in that area and refuses to drive.

The AI is being thoughtful about your safety and does not want to get mired in a dust storm while on the road and possibly get into a car accident that could get you harmed.

On the other hand, you have your reasons for wanting to take a chance and get to the doctor.

Should you be able to override the AI and insist that it drive you, or are you stuck until the AI declares that it is safe to go?

There are plenty of these kinds of AI ethics scenarios that are not yet resolved (see my indication here), and we won’t especially encounter them until there is a wider prevalence of self-driving cars.

Meanwhile, for those of you in the southeastern region of the U.S. that are going to be engulfed with dust, you might just find yourself facing a similar ethical dilemma as might an AI driving system, requiring you to gauge whether driving or not driving is the proper choice when a dust storm is enveloping you.

Good luck, stay out of the dust, and drive safely!

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