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Drones Could Help Self-Driving Vehicles Navigate More Safely

Box Clever's concept design could potentially resolve whether self-driving cars prioritize the passenger's life or the pedestrian's life.

Box Clever, a design firm whose clients include Samsung, Google, and Microsoft has conceived of a symbiotic relationship between unmanned aerial vehicles and self-driving cars, where the former provides vital foresight to the latter and can thereby mitigate potential accidents on the road. 

Currently, self-driving cars by various manufacturers are being tested on roads across the country, but a few ethical dilemmas have yet to be sorted out. How does the car’s autonomous decision-making fare when faced with the choice between either saving the passenger’s life or a pedestrian on the road? This is the particular conundrum that Box Clever posits can be resolved by implementing a drone into each self-driving car, as it could forge ahead of the vehicle and see a little further down the road, allowing for such scenarios to be prevented entirely.

When Co.Design asked a variety of design firms to conceive of functional, preventative measures regarding a self-driving car’s decision-making when faced with potential fatalities, it was San Francisco-based company Box Clever that offered the most interesting option. Since UAVs have become an affordable, practical tool that can provide users and their cars with an aerial view otherwise unavailable, why not combine the two vehicles to assist each other? As Box Clever envisions it, the drone, attached to the self-driving car’s roof, would be deployed whenever unexpected circumstances on the road are encountered and the autonomous navigation could benefit from a bird’s-eye view. 

Here’s what that might look like.

A self-driving vehicle and its drone surveying the road ahead for potential alternative routes., Box Clever

Naturally, this would not only add a layer of protection to the passenger within the car, but provide one for pedestrians and potential accident-scenes on the road, as well. Let’s take the scenario pictured in the image above, if a self-driving car detects a road-blocking accident ahead, this additional pair of eyes in the sky could seek out alternative routes. If there’s no oncoming traffic, and the light is green, the self-driving car might as well drive around the accident and maintain the flow of traffic. According to Co.Design, the vehicle could even warn other self-driving cars of the location and data collected at the scene, so that others could adapt their routes and behaviors, as well. Pretty nifty, right?

Founder and Creative Director of Box Clever, Bret Rector, thinks of the implemented drone as both an informative tool and co-pilot, of sorts. “It’s almost like satellite imagery around you while you’re moving. The car has a buddy,” he said. “It’s able to go higher and out in front and potentially detect other things that are off the road. Like, say, a deer that’s about to dart across a vehicle’s path.”  

Once more, the discussion of privacy versus security comes into play. With aerial vehicles recording other drivers and capturing their license plate information, faces, and general driving behavior, not everyone would opt in for this to become a standard. Then again, as time moves forward, it seems as though most people are providing corporations with personal information anyway, that suggesting that drones implemented in self-driving cars wouldn’t be too much of an issue for many. This, of course, remains to be seen. 

To be clear, this is still very much a concept design, with no current plans to begin production or even being granted regulatory permission. The company is simply thinking outside of the box, cleverly. With last year being a 25-year high of pedestrian fatalities caused by cars, it’s high time to inject some of this innovative, creative technological use into our public infrastructure. As is evident by the wide preponderance of various use-cases for drone technology, UAVs are continuously revealing new solutions to age-old problems.