I’m singing and dancing in the rain.

Well, I’d so while on the sidewalk and walking along as a pedestrian, but assuredly I would not be doing any “singing and dancing” while at the wheel of a car that is being drenched by a severe rainstorm.

All around me are other cars that are struggling to make their way through the rain barrage. Traffic has become as slow as molasses. Everyone is late to wherever they are trying to drive. It is a colossal rain-soaked mess. In short, driving in the rain is rarely a frivolity and decidedly not a proverbial picnic in the park.

An astute driver is on their toes while driving in the rain.

Visibility can be radically reduced, so you need to strain to see what is up ahead. The windshield wipers are doing their best to whisk away the blurry coating of rainwater, but this does not entirely solve the problem of being able to see clearly and without any kind of obstructed view.

The roads are super slick and there are deep puddles to be dealt with (for my analysis of self-driving cars dealing with mysterious puddles while driving, see the link here). There is bound to be flooding somewhere along your driving journey. Perhaps the roadway was poorly designed and fails to ensure that the rainwater cascades off the roadway surface. Or maybe a storm drain is jammed up and won’t let the accumulating mass of water get out of the street.

All in all, the roadway infrastructure plays a big part in whatever happens while undertaking the driving chore.

There is another major factor that has to be taken into account.

Drivers and their wacky ways of driving.

Yes, besides contending with the roadway ramifications due to torrents of rain, a whole other beastly encounter arises when dealing with our fellow human drivers.

In a sense, our daily driving in ordinary weather conditions that lack rain is tantamount to a form of stable equilibrium (for more details about this facet, see the link here). Drivers do what they do. Some drivers tend to drive faster than they should. Some drivers drive slower than the rest of us prefer. On the balance, there is a kind of status quo that develops. During a normal day of relative sunshine or even cloudiness, the cars come and go. The drivers have gotten used to each other. An occasional nutty driver will shake things up, but this is a tiny perturbation. Their antics as a driver are like a small pebble causing a barely noticeable ripple in a large pond or lake.

When the rain comes along, all bets are off.

The equilibrium established for an ordinary day of driving is knocked on its head. People that once drove fast, might decide to start driving extraordinarily slowly. The regularly slow driving drivers might opt to now drive overly fast. It is hard to know how people will react to the rain.

To some degree, the driving task changes because of the rainy conditions, and the reaction of the drivers is altered too. In theory, if we all agreed to drive in a “reasonable” manner during the rain, the difficulties of driving in the rain would be a lot less problematic.

Unfortunately, the world is a dog-eat-dog struggle, and this is demonstrated fully while driving in the rain.

Drivers won’t let you get ahead of them. Whereas taking cuts in line while on a freeway or highway was somewhat okay before a rainfall, the civil arrangements of roadway etiquette are summarily broken amidst the rain. Most drivers are on edge. They are edgy about their own driving. They are edgy about the driving of everyone else.

There is a boiling pot of driver angst when driving in the rain.

One slightly good piece of news is that the rain alteration can inevitably lead to a new status quo, effectively producing a new kind of equilibrium. For people that live in rainy climates, the rain is not a surprise or shock to the system. Drivers have their accustomed mode to rain driving and they employ it accordingly.

Localities that rarely get rain are the ones that seem to have the greatest overall challenge of driving in the rain. People have either forgotten how to adjust to rain-related driving, or they never learned how to cope with it, to begin with. They are somewhat in awe that this water appears to be dropping from the sky above, and perhaps are more focused on the act of raining versus the act of driving.

You might have heard of the famous saying that drivers in California do not know how to drive in the rain (ostensibly due to the relative rarity of annual rainfall). This is somewhat apt for parts of California, though you would find some areas that are more acclimated to rain-related driving.

In any case, one of the interesting twists is that you’ll find people complaining incessantly about other drivers and their lack of rain driving prowess while insisting that they know what they are doing. Thus, it seems that by-and-large no one will fess up to being a lousy driver in the rain. This creates a conundrum, it would seem. If everyone is really good at driving in the rain, this creates a bit of a mystery or riddle about why everyone else complains about everyone else.

Simulations of driving behaviors help to showcase an intriguing element about driving in the rain.

The rainy conditions spur some drivers to go slower than usual.

This seems quite prudent as a sensible reaction to the driving environment. Since your visibility is hampered, and the car traction is bound to be reduced, it makes perfectly good sense to drive more slowly. Take your time. Be extra careful on those tricky turns. Ensure that you can stop in time for a red light and that the tires will not slip-and-slide or hydroplane on a layer of rainwater. And so on.

Here’s the twist.

Other drivers that might normally drive at a customary speed are frustrated at the enormous abundance of these slower moving cars. Rather than deciding to go with the same flow, these exasperated drivers will turn toward the other end of the spectrum, namely, they will drive faster than they usually do. This is their reaction to the driving environment becoming plagued with slower driving drivers.

The logic for going faster is that you need to make up for the now added delays by these abundant slower driving drivers. Add to this circumstance that there are likely roadways that are closed due to the rain or that must be slowly driven due to the pools of water, and there is a one-two punch that the impatient driver is responding to.

These faster driving drivers are having to make up for the lost time due to the infrastructure issues caused by the rain, and make-up for the lost time due to the “slower drivers” that now inhabit the roadways in a much larger volume than during an ordinary driving setting.

One might politely suggest that such drivers should merely allow for more time in their driving journey, ergo leaving from their point of origin earlier than usual, but I digress and those are surely fighting words for some (I can’t get away sooner, some lament, and am on-the-clock such that there is no choice but to go into a higher gear during the rain).

In any case, the kicker is that as these faster driving drivers get into pickles, they tend to inspire many other drivers to go even slower, doing so out of an abundance of caution at witnessing the fevered driver.

In turn, this stoking of driving slower will spur the fast drivers to drive even faster.

Around and around the cycle goes. One might even be tempted to say that when it rains, it pours (but that would be a rather misty-eyed pun).

Why do people drive overly fast in the rain?

That classic question can be generally answered by the aspect that since many drivers are driving more slowly than normal, other drivers believe that the correct response is to drive faster. This presumably will allow them to make up for the lost time.

Of course, driving faster in rainy conditions and among other more careful drivers is not a prudent driving strategy. You might at first believe that you are making good time and that those other drivers are all sheep that do not realize the fox is among them.

Regrettably, the faster moving driver can generate all sorts of added problems. Besides the obvious aspect of themselves getting into a car crash or collision, they can spark others to do so. There is seemingly nothing more infuriating as a driver than to see a crazed driver that manages to confound a more careful driver, and for which those other drivers might end-up in a collision, while the grinning driver scoots away by the skin of their teeth.

There is another somewhat oddball aspect that can arise too.

When some drivers see another driver that is driving fast, while amidst the delayed and rainy conditions, they are turned from being the benevolent driver into the frenzied driver. This can happen because they are thinking that if someone else is getting away with the wild driving, they might as well do so too.

Another mental concoction is that if it is “safe” for the other driver to be driving fast, this is some form of “proof” that driving fast is fine and quite acceptable.

In short, similar to a social media posting that can rapidly spread from one person to another, the act of driving too fast in rainy conditions can spread virally among human drivers.

Well, perhaps this discussion has opened your eyes to the complexities of driving while in the rain. On the other hand, maybe you already assumed the aforementioned aspects and knew in your heart or your head that this is the typical phenomenon of what happens in rain-related driving.

Shifting gears, the future of cars and of driving consists of self-driving cars.

Here is today’s interesting question: Will AI-based true self-driving cars be able to cope with rain-related driving and if so, what will they do?

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 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 Driving In The Rain

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.

Some pundits suggest that the beauty of having self-driving cars will be that the AI driving systems will drive in a quite rational way and will not drive in an oddball manner that humans drive. AI driving systems will drive in a lawful manner. They will be programmed to drive within the posted speed limit. They will be coded to be courteous to other cars on the roadways. Etc.

How does that parlay into rain-related driving?

In theory, if the only cars on the roadways were all self-driving cars, the AI driving systems would be civil towards each other and drive in a careful manner appropriate to the rainy conditions (when I refer to aspects such as being civil, do not misinterpret this to imply that AI is sentient, and instead realize it is due to the programming of the AI that this behavior arises; do not anthropomorphize the AI).

Keep in mind that the AI driving systems are not collectively collaborating with each other in some kind of cohesive interconnected way (that’s not how things are currently being devised). Right now, the AI driving system on-board a self-driving car is focused on the driving of that car. It does not particularly know or care what the other AI driving systems are doing, other than how those other nearby self-driving cars are driving.

The AI of one self-driving car is using its sensors such as video cameras, radar, LIDAR, ultrasonic units, and the like, and detecting other nearby objects. Those nearby objects include other cars. Those other cars are at times self-driving cars and at other times human-driven cars. The AI driving system is attempting to track and predict what those other cars are going to do, regardless of whether being driven by AI or being driven by a human driver.

An added plus for AI driving systems is going to be the use of V2V (vehicle-to-vehicle) electronic communications. This feature allows an AI driving system to send an electronic message to other nearby self-driving cars. For example, suppose the AI driving system has detected a big pothole in the road that is hidden by a muddy pool of water, the AI can use the V2V to forewarn other self-driving cars about the roadway issue.

Okay, so if we had only self-driving cars on our highways and streets, they would presumably be careful and cautious around each other. They would all equally by-and-large opt to take the slower approach to drive as a proper response to the diminished driving conditions. This would happen not by some Wizard of Oz command that went across all the self-driving cars, and instead would be due to each AI driving system reacting (as programmed) toward the compromised driving environment.

I want to be very careful here and continue to emphasize that this notion of the self-driving cars all seemingly in unison being able to accommodate the rainy conditions is not axiomatic and nor is it as a result of some kind of sentience. Furthermore, each automaker and self-driving car tech firm will programmatically be injecting their own preferred approach into the AI driving systems. Thus, the driving actions of self-driving cars by the XYZ firm can certainly be reacting differently than those of the ABC firm.

But let’s assume generally that if we did have only self-driving cars on the roadways that they would likely end-up driving more cautiously overall in the rain, and they would defer to other nearby self-driving cars in a somewhat neutral dance of sharing the roadway in a balanced manner.

The thing is, this notion of having only self-driving cars on our roadways is rather dreamy and an unlikely scenario. We currently have over 250 million conventional cars in the United States alone, and those vehicles are not going to overnight be replaced by self-driving cars (for my collected stats, see the link here). It will take many years for self-driving cars to ramp up in terms of production and being brought onto the roadways. All told, it is presumably decades before we could consider having solely self-driving cars on the roads.

And some insist anyway that you will never take away their human driving privileges, other than when you remove their cold dead hands from the steering wheel.

The upshot is that self-driving cars are going to be mixing it up with human-driven cars. This includes the scenario of a rain-soaked real-world environment that has a fouled-up roadway infrastructure due to the rain, and that has the usual human antics of aberrant driving behaviors while driving in the rain.

Can self-driving cars deal with this changed equilibrium from an ordinary driving environment?

If you were ever wondering why a lot of the public roadway testing of self-driving cars is taking place in locales such as sunny California or Florida or Arizona, you now have your answer. Part of the reason is due to the “easy” weather conditions. Getting an AI driving system to drive safely and properly from point A to point B is arduous in the simplest of roadway conditions, thus adding the rain is a much tougher added condition.

Yes, there are lots and lots of simulations being done for the preparing of the AI driving systems to cope with rainy conditions. These are computer-based simulations wherein the cars are simulated on various kinds of roadway infrastructures. Amongst the simulated conditions are aspects such as adding rain, adding snow, and so on. This does help to get the AI driving ready for real-world settings.

Also, there are special closed tracks that are being used. This can be undertaken in areas that have inclement weather. They can also take place in locales wherein various weather conditions can be created on-demand, such as using a sprinkler system to sprinkle out water as though it is raining.

The other approach consists of having the self-driving cars operate on public roadways in places that do get rain.

One thought that you might have is that self-driving cars should proceed to be like those slower and cautious human drivers. This would seem the best approach. In other words, do not have self-driving cars act like those fast driving humans that seem to drive with disdain for their fellow human drivers. Instead, make sure that all self-driving cars take the proper care and move slowly accordingly (to clarify, slowly is meant to convey the relative difference between when driving in ordinary driving conditions versus those of rain-soaked setting).

Allow the crazy antics of human drivers to take place, essentially ignoring those antics, and just keep plowing ahead as though the mainstay is to deal with the rain and the adverse roadway status. No matter what else the humans are doing, at least the self-driving cars can be counted on to drive in a manner suitable to the diminished driving environment.

That does seem to make indubitable sense.

Conclusion

Unfortunately, what might seem sensible at first glance can have inadvertent and adverse consequences.

Remember that earlier it was indicated that human drivers often react to those around them that are driving slowly by opting to drive fast.

Here’s the rub.

If self-driving cars are prevalent in a given area, and it is raining, and if those self-driving cars tend toward driving more slowly to accommodate the rain, what will the human drivers do?

You guessed it, the human drivers (some of them) will tend toward driving faster and faster, trying to make up for what they perceive as the slowed-down driving taking place around them. Ironically, the effort of the AI driving systems to essentially make the driving safer can spur human drivers into driving more recklessly.

Yikes!

Some would argue that this is yet another reason to get rid of human drivers. The sooner we can have only self-driving cars as our means of car transportation, the better off we will be, since those insidious human drivers are going to mess-up anything and be doing so while behind the wheel of a car.

Another reaction to this mental riddle, and an altogether opposite one of the sorts, consists of wanting the self-driving cars to essentially fight fire-with-fire, opting to drive faster, just like the human drivers do. This is a rather hard pill to swallow and has quite alarming downsides.

There is one thing that seems to absolutely be the case, which is that trying to figure out how to get self-driving cars to drive in the rain is a complicated problem. Dealing with the rain and the changes that occur to the roadway are one aspect of that problem. Ascertaining how to cope with human drivers and the alterations in the overarching driving equilibrium is yet another part of that problem.

You might say that human drivers are the five-hundred-pound gorilla standing in the rainy roadways and that AI driving systems have to be developed to handle the resulting ragtag jungle.

Don’t be surprised too if one day you are driving in the rain, and over on the sidewalk is an AI-based robot that is singing and dancing in the rain.

I’m sure that some AI systems would cherish that roadway chore.

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