That California Woman Using Her Car To Thwart A Mountain Lion And Save Her Beloved Dog Provides Valuable Lessons For AI Self-Driving Cars
What would you do?
A woman in California heard her beloved pet dog barking frantically outside of her home and wondered what in the heck was going on in her backyard. It was the kind of frenetic yapping that only happens when something terrible is transpiring.
Upon looking out the window of her domicile, she saw a mountain lion that was going toe-to-toe with her cherished pooch. As an indication of how fierce the mountain lion must be, it had seemingly scaled a towering six-foot deer fence that surrounded the perimeter of the property.
Imagine the stout determination of that mountain lion.
The woman had to take action immediately.
Her canine was getting off-and-on mauled by the mountain lion. It was an entirely frightening and gut-wrenching spectacle. The courageous dog was doing whatever it could to defend itself, possibly also wanting to defend the property and the family therein from this dangerous intruder.
You could try opening the backdoor of the house and attempt vigorously to summon the pooch to quickly come indoors. This though might invite the mountain lion in too. It was also doubtful that the dog would give much consideration to such an escape and was entirely focused on doing battle with the mountain lion. One supposes that if the dog veered from the confrontation, the mountain lion would merely pounce mercilessly onto the innocent animal and the hound would have little chance of scampering into the house anyway.
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There wasn’t any obvious way to scare off the mountain lion. Yelling at it would be ineffective. The beast was focused on making a kill. For all intents and purposes, the mountain lion had gotten a taste of the dog and likely believed that victory was within grasp. All aspects suggested that this mountain lion was unstoppable and had become possessed with the intent of taking her much-loved doggy.
Unstoppable except for the overpowering force of a moving car.
The woman darted into your side yard, jumped into the seat of her car, started the engine hurriedly, and drove directly toward the mountain lion. With a lot of horn honking and the menacing threat of a several thousand-pound automotive steamrolling car coming at the trespasser, the mountain lion took off.
Victory for humanity and dog lovers.
Defeat for a menacing mountain lion.
The dog was taken to a veterinarian and was expected to make a full recovery from the bodily injuries suffered during the brawl with the mountain lion. Some extra dog food and treats were well-earned by this brave defender. The mountain lion was being sought by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.
A generally happy ending to the daunting ordeal.
The saga is interesting here because of the use of a car to defend against the attacking mountain lion.
Perhaps most of us think of our cars when we mainly are already in them, such that if you were seated in the driver’s seat and you saw that a mountain lion was on the attack that you would straightaway use your car to scare off the unwanted brute. I dare say that we would probably be less inclined to consider using your car when we aren’t even inside the automotive wonder.
Going through your mind instead might be things that you could readily pick up and use as a weapon against the mountain lion. Possibly you might grab a shovel from your garage or select a large wooden post that might perchance be laying around. Of course, brandishing such a weapon will nonetheless put you in potential grave danger. The mountain lion might decide you are more savory than going after your dog or at least decide that diverting attention toward you makes the most sense since you are presumably trying to attack it (the notion of only trying to shoo away the animal might not enter into the animal’s mindset).
Think about what you have to do to use a car in this setting.
In the case of using a conventional car, you need to make sure that you have the keys to the car. You need to open the door of the car and get into the car. You need to fumble around and use the keys to start the car (hopefully it starts). You need to put the car into gear. You need to drive the car to where the scuffle is taking place. You then need to aim toward the transgressor.
You want to be careful and not accidentally strike your dog. You need to keep your cool, at least enough to be able to drive the car without wrecking or rolling the vehicle. In your haste as a driver, it could be that an attempt to use your car ends up worsening the situation. There are lots of things that could go wrong.
On the other side of the ledger is that the mountain lion will be unlikely able to harm you. Even if the animal charges at the car, this would seem marginally risky to you. Suppose the mountain lion leaps to the hood of the car? Well, that’s quite a trick, but the odds of the angry beast breaking through the front windshield and bursting into the vehicle are extremely low. Pretty much unimaginable.
The good luck or smartness in selecting the car is that you are in a veritable protected shell. We can all reasonably agree that the mountain lion cannot get at you. As stated earlier, the bigger downside is that you panic at the driving controls. One can envision a highly stressed driver inadvertently hitting the gas and barreling into their own home or backyard property. Besides possibly damaging those items, it is conceivable that you might find yourself in a car crash of your own making.
One hates when that happens.
In this case, it seems that the woman had enough presence of mind that she did not apparently try to run over the mountain lion per se. She might have merely wanted to get it to change course and skedaddle. The focus was saving her treasured pooch. It could also be that the dog and the mountain lion were so closely battling each other that it was too risky to try and ram solely the unwelcome wrongdoer. Another possible notion is that the mountain lion was just doing what mountain lions do, potentially starving for a meal. How far does one go to stop an everyday animal that is doing what nature drives it to do?
Anyway, the main point about the car is that it was a bit of an unusual selection for this particular circumstance. Unusual or not, you have to admit that the choice worked.
Speaking of cars, the future of cars consists of AI-based true self-driving cars. 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 coverage of Autonomous Vehicles (AVs) and especially self-driving cars, see the link here.
Here’s an intriguing question that is worth pondering: Would you have been able to use an AI-based true self-driving car in this kind of dire or ostensibly dreadful situation?
Before jumping into the details, I’d like to clarify what is meant when referring 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).
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 Confronting Mountain Lions
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 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, regarding using your vehicle to dissuade a mountain lion, you might have to discard the notion that you would have a car at all.
Some pundits keep exhorting that we will not individually be able to own self-driving cars. This lack of ownership is often couched as based on the projected high price associated with purchasing a self-driving car. I’ve debunked this contention (see my coverage at this link here).
Another claim is that only large companies will own and operate self-driving cars, doing so in fleets, partially to ensure that proper care and maintenance takes place. I’ve debunked that argument too (see the link here).
Okay, so I contend that individual ownership of self-driving cars will indeed occur. In that case, you would have available your self-driving car sitting in your driveway and waiting to be used to scare off a mountain lion. The only catch is that your self-driving car might be out and about, rather than being parked and doing nothing.
You see, conventional cars are idle and parked for around 95% or more of their available usage time. They sit around, waiting for us to use them. The key to this idleness is that a human driver is needed. The car is nothing more than a large paperweight until a human driver hops into the driver’s seat.
A self-driving car will be able to drive without a human driver. This means that you can potentially have your self-driving car doing errands for you, such as going over to the grocery store to pick up groceries for you (a grocery store employee would load the bags into your trunk, and the autonomous vehicle would then return to your home). You can also use your self-driving car for ridesharing or ride-hailing purposes. All you need to do is make it available for that aim, perhaps posting it as available on a popular ride-hailing network, and your car is now making money while you do other chores or do nothing whatsoever.
That is a bit of a rub.
It will be tempting to have your self-driving car running around and doing all sorts of things. Meanwhile, you won’t have it right next to you and ready for your use. There is a tradeoff involved, that’s for sure. Would you feel better or safer to have your self-driving car parked and waiting for you, or is it okay to have it roaming around and performing errands or earning money for you?
Let’s assume for sake of discussion that your self-driving car was perchance there in your driveway when the mountain lion came a calling.
You run out to your self-driving car and want to get into it. But wait, do you need to actually be inside the self-driving car to have it become operational?
Some argue that you should be able to control your self-driving car while outside of the vehicle. This might be done via an app on your smartphone. It could also be conceivably done by a voice recognition capability of the vehicle whereby it has microphones aimed outward and picks up voice commands that are spoken to it. You presumably could yell out to the self-driving car that it should startup and go after that threatening mountain lion.
A counterargument is that we are going to be getting into some pretty dicey situations if we allow people to remotely control their self-driving cars. The person controlling the vehicle might decide to do something dastardly, and since they are not inside the vehicle, they are going to avoid any direct adverse consequences from their commands. Some assert that we are opening Pandora’s box by allowing remote control of a multi-ton vehicle, a far cry from the remote control of a toy racing car.
Let’s assume for sake of discussion that you can give remote commands but only to the degree that you are allowed to give the AI driving system an indicated destination. You can for example tell the self-driving car to drive to the grocery store or over to Aunt Betties’ house. You cannot specifically guide the vehicle such as telling it to proceed ahead twenty feet or anything that seems to be an open-ended type of instruction.
In the mountain lion scenario, you can probably sense that we are heading toward a bit of a problem about trying to use a self-driving car to intimidate the beast that is attacking your prized pooch.
About the only way to go after that mountain lion will involve a likely circuitous route. This could include driving onto your grass and avoiding any bushes, trees, or other items in your backyard. A human at the wheel would be eyeing the mountain lion and generally be heading in the direction of the animal. It is unlikely that the self-driving car has been programmed to do this.
I mention that the AI probably wasn’t programmed to take that kind of action. I say this because some would insist a self-driving car ought to never ever do anything such as aiming to strike a living creature. I’ve covered this in my discussion about Asimov’s three laws of robotics and how they pertain to and might not be quite fitting for the advent of self-driving cars (see my analysis at this link here).
If an automaker or self-driving tech firm decided to include a module or program code to allow for trying to go after an animal, the self-driving car could certainly proceed in that manner. At this time, the aspect of having that kind of programming is highly doubtful. Imagine the backlash.
You might be thinking that this type of capability would be handy in the case of the attacking mountain lion. Yes, that would seem to be the case. Unfortunately, suppose the person inadvertently instructed the AI driving system to go after the dog. Unsettling. Or, suppose the mountain lion was the stated target, but the AI driving system become confounded and went toward the dog or was seeking the mountain lion but then struck the dog.
This is a horrible can of worms.
The easiest answer is to make clear that the AI driving system should not try to hit any living creature. That seems to make abundant sense. On the other hand, you’ve now taken your self-driving car out of the picture in terms of being able to use it to fight off the mountain lion. In short, the self-driving car will not be a viable tool for your defense or the defense of saving your precious canine.
All in all, this suggests that the woman in California would have had to find some other means to distract or repel the mountain lion, assuming that she owned a self-driving car and that it was parked and ready to be used.
Some numerous additional twists and turns could be considered.
One twist is that self-driving cars are right now being developed primarily for on-road use rather than off-road use. The existing standard that stipulates the levels of self-driving cars encompasses only on-road activities and intentionally excludes any off-road transit (see my columns for an explanation about the standard).
For the mountain lion scenario, the self-driving car would likely “refuse” to go into the backyard since it is not a paved road and not readily navigable in the normal semblance of on-road driving (by suggesting that the system “refused’ you, this is not intended to be a sentience marker, and only that the programming would probably emit a message stating that the AI driving system is unable to navigate in an off-roading situation).
Consider another twist, which some of you might have already been contemplating. Could you contact the fleet operator and ask them to drive the car toward the mountain lion? The idea is that self-driving cars will have a provision to access a remote human agent that can potentially do something with your self-driving car.
I’ve repeatedly warned that we ought to not allow remote agents the ability to actively drive a self-driving car. This takes us back to the qualms about the possibility of untoward actions. A remote agent can provide overall suggested guidance to the AI driving system of the self-driving car, such as proffering to slow down or speed up, or take a right turn soon, that kind of thing, but this is to be construed simply as guidance only. The AI driving system still has to ascertain what driving actions are “reasonable” and sensible at any point in time of the driving task.
To some extent, most AI developers are not particularly sitting around thinking about mountain lions and wondering what the AI driving system should be programmed to do. At this time, there is a tremendous amount of energy and angst going toward the straightforward goal of getting self-driving cars to safely drive from point A to point B. The mountain lion conundrum is at best an edge or corner case, meaning that this instance and others akin to it are something that someday they might worry about covering.
Though we can eventually anticipate that self-driving cars will routinely be transporting our beloved pets, taking them to see grandma or grandpa, or going on a visit to the veterinarian, doing so without you having to accompany the animal, we have a number of other incremental steps to go before that day readily arrives.
There is one lucky dog that is likely happy that a conventional car was at the ready and able to turn the tide in the battle with the mountain lion. One wonders, do you think the dog though is to this day insisting that it could have won the skirmish all on its own and that the car was not needed to intervene?
That’s those brave, brash, and brazen dogs for you.