This week, the new GMC Hummer EV truck was showcased in a sneak -peek video teaser that hinted at the use of its Crabwalk mode, a special feature allowing the driver to steer the vehicle diagonally.
Similar to how a crab might weave to-and-fro at dramatic angles, the Crabwalk mode enables all four wheels to be steered in the same diagonal direction and then be driven accordingly. The online video only sparingly demonstrates this capability, being exceedingly brief and obviously intended to whet our appetites for the upcoming October 20 official debut of this potential Cybertruck competitor. As an aside (spoiler alert), the video clip offers some mild amusement by focusing on a darting crab, which luckily avoids becoming roadkill, saved by (of course) the quick activation of the Hummer’s special mode and then having the truck steer afield of the scampering decapod crustacean.
There is no word as yet about how far the diagonal driving can be laterally pointed. The odds are that the wheels cannot go a full ninety degrees, a feat that is usually only seen on concept cars or one-off vehicles devised for that purpose. You might have seen grainy footage from the 1930s of cars with a fifth-wheel arranged at a ninety-degree angle, able to lift up the rear wheels when desired and enable a car to essentially be slid over at an obtuse angle. Ever since the initial invention of the car, it seems there has been keen interest in being able to maneuver sideways, one way or another.
The mechanical underpinnings to implement a sideways driving action is a lot harder than it might seem at first glance. Numerous issues arise about the internal mechanisms and shaping of the vehicle to allow such a capacity, plus concerns arise about the tires and how they might fare as a result of such maneuvering. Also, questions immediately come to the forefront about how fast one should be driving, or be allowed to drive, once the vehicle is heading diagonally. All in all, the whole topic generates a lot of headaches and added costs, against which there is a weighing of the benefits of being able to do a crab-like crawl.
Speaking of moving diagonally, when would you use these atypical crossway driving features?
Some assert it is more so a braggart feature than a practical one. You might invoke it to impress your friends or strangers, doing so with much glee upon first driving the vehicle, but after a while, it would seem that the shock-and-awe will inexorably wear off. At that point, you might use the feature from time-to-time, if you perchance remember that it exists. Drivers often forget that they have some extraordinarily amazing capabilities built into their vehicles and therefore fail to activate them, even when it would be prudent and efficacious to do so.
In that sense, some argue that a diagonal driving mode is intended as a marketing ploy more so than a “thank goodness” feature at your fingertips. This notion though of packing exotic or less-used features into a vehicle for purposes of upping the street cred and selling vehicles is nothing to sneeze at. It works. And undoubtedly it still allows the automaker to stand on high ground by emphasizing that these capabilities can and do make a driving difference, some of the time.
The most often cited example of using a diagonal driving mode would involve parking your car or truck. Perhaps you spy a tight parking spot, offering just enough space between two parked cars and you are sure that you can squeeze into it. You could use the mundane and classical parallel parking effort, but it requires muscling back-and-forth versus moving diagonally, a feat that might be rated as exceptionally eloquent and effective. Some would solemnly pledge that if they had such a mode, they would use it all of the time, while others might insist that they’ve rarely ever experienced a situation that caused them to voraciously clamor for a diagonally devised driving capacity in their vehicle.
Another use would be for close cornering. You find yourself coming upon a tight turn and switch into the diagonal driving mode to hug the road and successfully navigate the curve snugly. Again, one has to wonder how often this is going to happen in any day-to-day type of driving. On the other hand, there is a case to be made than when the moment arises, presumably, you’ll decidedly wish you had such a feature, one that you needed readily at your beck and call.
There’s another significant viewpoint about the diagonal driving capability that bears crucial consideration, namely off-road driving.
In theory, people buying these super trucks are aiming to drive not just on quiet neighborhood streets and fully paved freeways. With all the muscle built into these trucks, you must have some off-road expeditions in mind. At least that’s what the ads portray, though how much of the time that buyers do hit the gravel and mud for true off-road adventures are open for debate.
The good news is that whenever you might decide to go off-road, the diagonal driving feature is bound to come in handy. Furthermore, the capability would undoubtedly be at top-of-mind since this is the time and place that the sideways angling can be a game-changer. Whether doing rock crawling or coping with difficult terrain, the crab-like finessing could spell the difference between getting out of a jam or preventing getting into one. Certainly, if others are driving nearby and you suddenly showoff your diagonal movement, they are apt to burst into applause.
On city streets, rather than getting accolades, you might get some rude commentary. Why so? At this juncture, there are so few vehicles that can shift into a diagonal driving mode that it is quite unfamiliar to most everyone else on the roadway. As such, though it might garner a moment’s fascination, the downside is that it entails doing a driving stunt that other drivers are wholly unaccustomed to seeing, confounding other drivers. Also, there is a chance that the capability might baffle pedestrians, causing them to get confused about which way to avoid getting hit by the unexpected surprise of a diagonally moving vehicle.
Shifting gears, consider the future of cars and trucks, and how everyday ground transportation is going to work. The odds are that we’ll eventually have self-driving cars and trucks.
This brings up an intriguing question to ponder: How might a diagonal driving mode impact the advent of AI-based true self-driving 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 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, as explained in my discussion 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 Diagonal Driving
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.
There are two major facets to consider when assessing the crab-mode diagonal driving capabilities in light of emerging self-driving cars:
1. Self-driving cars needing to anticipate and react to human-driven cars with those features
2. Self-driving cars possessing those features and when to best employ them
First, consider the ramifications of human-driven cars that have the diagonal driving and can use that special feature in everyday driving situations.
As mentioned earlier, other human drivers are bound to be confounded when having to contend with a vehicle that goes into the diagonal mode and begins to drive in that unusual manner. This could irk those drivers that do not have such a feature, believing that the other driver is merely boasting and not genuinely using the capability for a bona fide purpose. Also, if the human driver utilizing the mode gets stuck or somehow takes too long to do a driving maneuver, you can bet that the other human drivers nearby will become exasperated and exhort that the driver should just do things the normal way.
This whole scenario could change if the preponderance of cars and trucks ultimately are loaded standard with the diagonal moving feature. In that case, the world will have completely switched, such that if you aren’t using the crab mode when warranted, other drivers will yell at you to get a grip and use the darned feature. It does though seem unlikely that the diagonal mode is going to become so popular and prevalent that this kind of mass switchover is going to occur, at least not for a long time.
What about the AI driving systems that come upon a human driver using a diagonal driving mode?
Most of the AI driving systems for self-driving cars are predicated on observing human drivers that drive in relatively predictable ways. Indeed, oftentimes gobs of driving data and traffic data are collected for use by Machine Learning (ML) and Deep Learning (DL) algorithms to find patterns in how people drive. As a result of those identified patterns, the AI can be established to anticipate how humans will react and undertake the driving task.
One of the biggest hurdles for self-driving cars is the so-called edge or corner cases. Those are instances of oddball or less-frequent driving situations that can potentially arise and yet are so outside the norm that they are rarely seen or otherwise experienced. For example, if a large corpus of traffic data has not ever included a duck that has wandered onto a freeway when the same thing happens in real life, the AI might not have any prior patterns upon which it was able to be set up to cope with this meandering duck edge-case.
If the number of vehicles with a diagonal driving mode are few, and the chances of ever seeing it used are low, this suggests that the AI might be caught off-guard, akin to how other human drivers can be taken aback. A human driver though presumably has common-sense reasoning and general intelligence that can allow them to cope with unusual driving situations. For the AI, please be aware that there is no semblance of common-sense or human intelligence capacity as yet, and so it is unclear how the AI might respond to the diagonal driving circumstances.
That being said, it seems that the diagonal driving could be nonetheless detected by the sensor suite of the self-driving car if it came upon a vehicle using such a feature. In that manner, the AI is informed about where the other vehicle is. And, the usual perfunctory capabilities of seeking to avoid other vehicles and not hit them, nor get hit, would all still readily come to play.
Overall, the odds of the self-driving car getting out of sorts when coming across a diagonally moving vehicle is not especially likely. Eventually, the automaker or self-driving tech firm that is crafting the AI is likely to encompass the appropriate responses into the driving systems, though this is undeniably a low priority in comparison to more pressing aspects such as driving the self-driving safely in everyday scenarios.
Now we can turn to the matter of outfitting a self-driving car with the diagonal driving feature.
Everything else being equal if you merely plunked down the AI into a vehicle that had such a feature and did not adjust the AI driving system accordingly, the bottom line is that the AI would not ever use the feature. Recall that the AI is not sentient, has no common-sense, and lacks overall human reasoning and intelligence. A human placed into a vehicle with the crab mode would likely experiment with it, and reason their way into figuring out how it works. This is extremely unlikely for today’s AI (namely, you would need to explicitly set up the AI, rather than having it overtly explore a new feature of its own accord, as it were).
Once the AI was set up for making use of the diagonal moving feature, it would then presumably invoke the feature in those particular settings that it had been programmed to do so. There is a chance that the AI might inadvertently opt to use the mode in situations that it was not necessary to do so (false positives), and fail to use it when the moment to do so was timely (false negatives). In any case, this could be said of human drivers too, though I am not equating human driving and AI driving (this is not an anthropomorphic implication).
We can return to an earlier point about humans that employ the diagonal driving and make a likewise comparison to an AI self-driving car that might do so. If there were say self-driving cars that all had the diagonal feature, and meanwhile most human-driven cars didn’t, the use of the feature by the AI would likely spark concern by human drivers. Other nearby human drivers would wonder what in the heck the AI is doing and complain that the use of the feature is unsettling.
In case you are thinking that we are going to have only self-driving cars soon on our roadways and no longer have any human-driven cars, you ought to reconsider that leap of logic. Today there are approximately 250 million conventional cars on our roadways in the United States alone. There will not be an overnight replacement of those conventional cars by self-driving cars. In short, there will be many years, seemingly decades, involving both self-driving cars and human-driven cars intermixed on our roadways.
The point being that self-driving cars need to be able to cope with human-driven cars. If we somehow waved a magic wand and had only self-driving cars, the AI of those vehicles could likely use V2V (vehicle-to-vehicle) electronic communications to inform each other about what they are doing. In that case, the moment a self-driving car opted to use a crab mode, it could send an electronic alert to other nearby self-driving cars. This will certainly be taking place, even as there are still human-driven cars on the roadways, though none of that obviates the qualms about how human-driven cars and their human drivers might react to a self-driving car invoking the diagonal driving mode.
Here’s an added twist for you.
The earlier indicated levels of self-driving cars do not encompass off-road driving.
Yes, it is somewhat surprising that the existing standard for the autonomous levels of self-driving cars does not include off-road driving. That type of driving is considered beyond the scope of the standard. The main takeaway is that most of the AI efforts to-date are focusing on street and highway on-road driving, rather than off-road driving. This is somewhat ironic because much of the initial research involving self-driving was about doing so off-road, which partially was a safer way to test out the efficacy of self-driving cars. To be clear, the nearer term money to be made by selling the self-driving capabilities is by far in the on-road market rather than the off-road market.
Do not interpret this facet to suggest that there will not eventually be a lucrative and huge market for off-road self-driving. In fact, there already is one developing, doing so for purposes of excavation, working mines, for military purposes, and the like. For those uses, it will be undeniably worthwhile to have a diagonal driving mode, and equally beneficial to make sure that the AI driving systems can accommodate and leverage such a feature.
As a final comment to consider, you might be aware that crabs are invertebrates, meaning they lack a backbone (their exoskeleton protects them). Humans that want to drive diagonally are at times fiercely loyal to the notion and have (one might say) a stout backbone for demanding such a capability.
To some degree, this is opening a can of worms for AI-based true self-driving cars, though, with the right amount of care and attention, it is more of a cornucopia than a Pandora’s box.