Volvo has admitted the unusual marsupial that is the kangaroo is playing havoc with its self-driving system.

Kangaroos present a real problem to Australians on the road and are responsible for nine out of 10 accidents involving animals according to insurance provider AAMI. In 2015, kangaroos were responsible for 88% of the 20,000 animal-related incidents on Australian roads.

That’s an 84% increase from 2009-2010 and it shows that the kangaroo population is on the rise.

So, the self-driving systems in development will have to find a way to locate and avoid the erratic kangaroos, which can often change course and cut across a car’s path with little to no warning.

Self-driving car must make sense of chaos

Predicting the volatile marsupial, which can weigh more than 200lb and stand more than seven-feet tall, is a nightmare task that will push AI to the limit.

It isn’t just the kangaroo’s unpredictable nature that is presenting a problem, Volvo’s systems are struggling with distances, because it simply doesn’t behave like other large mammals.

“We’ve noticed with the kangaroo being in mid-flight, when it’s in the air it actually looks like it’s further away. Then it lands and it looks closer,” Volvo technical manager David Pickett said.

This ‘sudden appearance’ of a kangaroo could force the car into drastic evasive action that could create a crisis out of a drama.

Kangaroos can cause serious damage to the car and they cause a substantial number of injuries each and every year. So, the car simply has to avoid them.

Accidents with kangaroos can get nasty

The kangaroo often hops to windscreen level and it’s not unheard of for them to end up injured, through the windshield and inside the car. That can end badly.

Volvo Australia’s Managing Director, Kevin McCann, says that kangaroos are just one of the obstacles the company is working on.

He said: “It’s a fairly drawn-out process. We don’t even refer to it specifically as kangaroo detection.  It’s what we call small animal detection.”

Each country has its own unique problems

Australia’s native fauna highlights the fact that each nation places its own unique demands on the next gen electric cars and autonomous systems.

Australia has to contend with kangaroos, blistering heat and poor connectivity in the Outback, Norway has black ice, Asia has flash floods, Switzerland has low-grip and tight Alpine passes and Germany has derestricted sections of Autobahn that can push a car to the limit.

Each and every country, then, will bring a unique set of demands to the table for the self-driving systems.

Customizing self-driving system is a big job

The additional work required to tailor the system for each country should head into a feedback loop that helps to polish the global fleet and create a one-size fits all system that can handle everything from an enraged kangaroo to sliding on a frozen lake.

We should not underestimate the magnitude of the task ahead. The major manufacturers have to harness the power of Artificial Intelligence to create the ultimate self-driving system that can cope with every country’s individual road systems, animals and even pedestrians.

 

Autonomous Volvos already in service

Volvo has already started working with Uber on a pilot project in Pittsburgh and it is working with drivers in Gothenberg on the Drive Me initiative. It wants to follow up with further pilots in London and on US soil, but it does not believe that driverless cars will be ready to go until 2021 at the earliest.

The Swedish company uses the state-of-the-art Nvidia Drive PX and it formed an offshoot company, Zenuity, with Autoliv to focus on the hardware and Volvo’s bespoke software.

Animals like the kangaroo will continue to throw spanners in the works, though, and we won’t really know how well the individual manufacturer’s system works until they’re in customers’ hands.