The Bathroom Break ‘Gotta Go’ Conundrum For Riders Inside AI Self-Driving Cars


Sometimes, something that might seem inconsequential can be a rather daunting problem.

Have you ever been driving your car and suddenly had your toddler announce that they have to go the bathroom? For most parents, this has happened at least once in their parental lives, if not many times. Indeed, parents that go through this circumstance are bound to repeatedly in the future admonish their children to go to the bathroom before any long road trip gets underway.

I know it sounds like a trivial matter, but when dealing with a crying youngster that is insisting that they need to find relief, any caring parent is going to realize this is rather important stuff to deal with. Of course, movies and TV shows have often utilized such scenarios for comedic purposes. Though not occurring within a car, there is a quite famous scene in the movie Liar Liar in which attorney-portraying actor Jim Carrey tells a judge during a courtroom trial that he just has to go to the restroom, for which the judge questions whether the matter can wait or not. The ensuing dialogue is precious, that’s for sure.

I suppose the point too is that the urgent need to gain relief is not solely apt to occur only for children. Adults can find themselves mired in the same problem.

Perhaps you are driving on the freeway to work and had consumed an entire cup of coffee that morning, plus you are sipping from a second full cup that is in your car with you. Traffic is snarled. The drive to the office is taking a lot longer than you anticipated.

Regrettably, you begin to feel the need for finding a nearby restroom. The problem is that there aren’t any exit ramps up ahead. Even if you were to do a timely exit from the freeway, you aren’t sure where you would find a suitable place that has a clean and safe restroom. It used to be that gas stations prided themselves on offering such a handy service, aiming to bring in customers that would then buy petrol and purchase some merchandise at the convenience store. Nowadays, it seems that many gas station bathrooms are oftentimes so deplorably kept that it is the last place you’d ever consider visiting, even in a time of dire crisis.

It used to be that you had to randomly hope for some establishment to be off the next exit up ahead of your vehicle. The good news is that nowadays with GPS and mapping systems, you can usually peek at the digital map and see what kinds of businesses might be at the next series of exits. A rule of thumb seems to be that if there is a well-known eatery such as a McDonald’s or similar, those usually have a restroom that is sanitary and safe enough to use in a pinch.

In any case, the driver of the car is on the hot seat, as it were, in the sense that when a request occurs for seeking relief, the driver needs to ascertain where, when, and how to find a reasonably suitable place to stop. You can’t just hit the brakes and miraculously have a solution at the door of your vehicle. It will take some amount of additional driving and precious, ostensibly nerve-racking, time to navigate to and arrive at a locale that will resolve the matter appropriately.

As mentioned, that’s why any seasoned driver usually considers such conundrums before getting behind the wheel of a car. If a drive is going to require any significant amount of time, the odds of a request for urgent aid is going to increase with each mile driven. The potential ensnarement can be an obvious one when taking a vacation trip that goes across many miles of open desert or through vast farmlands. You know beforehand that there won’t be viable options during the driving journey. Meanwhile, it is easy to get caught off-guard by those shorter trips that take place on highways or freeways and you get jammed into backed up bumper-to-bumper traffic, thus unexpectedly prolonging the time in the vehicle.

With today’s ridesharing, you don’t usually hear about situations of this nature arising in a ridesharing context. The chances are that a ridesharing trip is going to be short and sweet. Furthermore, ridesharing typically occurs in cities and populated areas that would allow for cutting a trip short, to utilize a location that seems suitable for the pressing matter. There are instances of ridesharing drivers that have been asked to find a restroom, though such cases are relatively uncommon.

We are back to the notion that the driver is going to be a key determiner of how fate will play out. A passenger that has a request will need to convey the request to the driver. The driver then has to try and figure out a means to accommodate the request. The classic “hold it” is often used by parents, though this can be a stress-inducing instruction and not especially satisfactory to all parties.

Speaking of drivers, the future of cars will consist of self-driving cars, meaning that the driver is an AI-based driving system (for more on my coverage, see the link here). Rather than having a human sitting at the steering wheel, there won’t be any steering wheel at all, and nor will there be a human driver involved in the driving task.

This raises an intriguing question: How will AI-based true self-driving cars cope with requests involving an urgent bathroom break as expressed by a passenger inside the vehicle?

Before we leap into the answer, one might be doubtful that such a question is worth posing at this time. Surely, of all the issues facing the advent of self-driving cars, this particular dilemma has got to be pretty low on the priority list.

You’d be right that the focus of the automakers and self-driving tech makers is more so on the challenges of technologically making AI driving systems that can safely drive from point A to point B. That has to happen for self-driving cars to make any substantive progress in terms of being readily accepted and utilized on our public roadways.

There are plenty of so-called edge or corner cases that will gradually and inexorably need to be worked out. Certainly, the matter being addressed in this discussion could be placed onto such a future-topics list to be resolved at a later date. Nonetheless, there is no getting around the fact that this is an aspect that happens in the real world of driving, at least concerning human drivers, and we would expect that eventually, the full gamut of self-driving cars ought to be able to contend with the same trials and tribulations that occur to human drivers.

All told, this topic is assuredly worth giving some modest consideration toward, and also provides interesting fodder for thinking about how self-driving cars will need to be programmed or adapted to handle the vagaries and nuances of carrying around human riders.

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 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, 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 Restroom Breaks

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 today’s AI 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. I mention this aspect because many headlines boldly proclaim or imply that AI has turned the corner and become equal to human intelligence. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the outsized headlines seek to amp further the matter by contending that AI is reaching superhuman capabilities (for why the use of “superhuman” as a moniker is especially misleading and inappropriate, see my discussion at this link here).

Why this emphasis about the AI not being sentient?

Because I want to underscore that when discussing the matter of concern herein, it is important to not ascribe 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.

In short, if a tearful child inside a self-driving car were to suddenly blurt out to the AI driving system that there was an urgent need to find a restroom, the AI is not somehow sentient and going to instantly respond with a caring reply. The AI driving systems are currently pretty much very limited in any kind of interaction with the passengers of the vehicle. Other than finding out the desired destination, most of the AI driving systems do nothing else as interaction and will simply and silently drive the car to the indicated address.

You can expect that the use of Natural Language Processing (NLP) akin to an Alexa or Siri will step-by-step be included in AI driving systems. This will allow a limited range of discourse with the AI driving system. For example, you might want to change your destination indication, so you speak-up, saying a wake-up keyword for the NLP, and then in short and clear-cut commands would state that you wish to go to a different address.

In theory, this NLP could encompass a capability associated with the bathroom break conundrum.

The NLP would have to be programmed accordingly. A passenger would need to indicate that they are requesting that the AI driving system reroute to a suitable locale that would have a restroom. Presumably, the AI driving system would examine the digital maps being used and proffer potential choices for the passenger, of which the rider might then select one that seems suitable.

Let’s mull that over.

Have you ever changed your driving path and came to a nearby restroom that upon actually seeing the locale it became evident that stopping there would unwise?

I’m sure that you have.

The same could happen when rerouting the self-driving car. Even once you arrive at the seemingly nearest option or one that you otherwise designated, upon seeing the nature of the place and where it resides, you might change your mind and desire a secondary choice instead. This means that you would need to instruct the AI driving system to try and go to the next possibility.

These kinds of interactions with a human driver are quite easy and we do not put much thought toward carrying on such conversations. A human driver might instantly realize when they pullup to a filthy gas station that the place does not look safe to stop at. At that juncture, a tough battle can ensue over whether it is worth a chance at using the locale or opting to proceed further.

Meanwhile, one might say the clock is ticking.

Do not expect the NLP capabilities to be as fluid and seemingly able as what you would experience with a human driver. On the other hand, it is sometimes the case that a human driver is recalcitrant and will either refuse to stop, even though the need has reached a crucial level, or will stop at a place that is patently scary and just say that you ought to get out of the car and proceed accordingly.

Hopefully, a well-crafted NLP would not be set up in the same manner.

Some wonder whether self-driving cars might be outfitted with accommodations within the vehicle itself, thus obviating the need to stop anywhere for the pressing need.

This is an interesting idea.

First, let’s clarify that self-driving cars will potentially be redesigned beyond what a conventional car currently consists of, especially altering the interior of the vehicle. Right now, a car has to have a driver’s seat and driving controls, all of which take up a blocked area in the interior. Without any need for human-accessible driving controls, the entire interior is suddenly openly available and can be reimagined accordingly.

Some futuristic designs showcase that there might be swivel seats inside a self-driving car. This would allow the passengers to face in whatever direction they wished. At one point during a driving journey, perhaps everyone is facing forward, just like in a conventional car. During a trek, perhaps all those seats are swiveled to face each other, allowing for direct face-to-face interaction.

There is also a design approach that involves seats that recline, allowing for taking a nap or outright snoozing while letting the AI do the driving. This makes abundant sense. If you are taking a long road trip, you might as well catch some winks on the way to your destination. That morning commute to work can even provide an opportunity for catching some shuteye, making you ready and refreshed when you reach the office.

Given those redesigns, some wonder whether a form of a “portable potty” might be included in the interior of a self-driving car. This would certainly be handy when the time arises. On the other hand, this would indubitably open other problems and make for a can of worms. You can imagine the logistics difficulties that would underpin having such a capability.

Returning to the more likely options, namely rerouting the self-driving car, you won’t necessarily need to interact with the AI driving system to do so. Most of the self-driving cars are going to be equipped with a telecommunications link that will allow you to speak with a remote agent, kind of akin to an OnStar-like feature. You could press a button and have a remote agent, a human, available to speak with about your need to find a restroom.

One aspect that has some controversy involves what the remote agent can and cannot do concerning the AI driving system. There are some automakers and self-driving tech firms that are going to allow a remote human agent to take over the driving controls from the AI driving system. This has some serious downsides and there will be a great deal of debate yet to come on such a provision (see my discussion at this link here).

Some believe that a more prudent approach involves the remote agent being able to provide advice to the AI driving system, rather than being able to directly control the vehicle. For example, the remote agent in this instance might look-up in an online database whether there are any suitable restrooms nearby to your present driving location, and then send an indication to the AI driving system to reroute to that location. Notice that the remote agent is not taking over the driving controls and instead merely changing the destination address.

All told, the options seem to be that the passenger might instruct the AI driving system to go to a location that will provide the needed accommodations, or the rider might make use of a remote agent to assist in altering the course of the self-driving car. The AI is not likely to play an active role in solving the dilemma per se, unlike a human driver that would potentially aid in reasoning about how to deal with the situation. There is also an off chance that some self-driving cars might have a built-in restroom-like option, though this is unexpected and seemingly unlikely.


There is an added twist to this.

It is conceivable that waystations for self-driving cars might be established. These would be set up to enable the recharging or refueling of self-driving cars. There might also be a maintenance and cleaning crew at those spots. Since self-driving cars are potentially going to be on-the-go 24×7, this implies that there will need to be relatively frequent efforts to keep the vehicle clean and in proper shape for driving and for carrying passengers.

Okay, it is also conceivable that those might be locales that a rider could use a restroom. Similar to the notion of using a restroom at a gas station, these newer kinds of waystations might provide the same facility. On top of that, one supposes that these specially devised waystations might be expanded to include a convenience store capacity too.

Nobody can say whether those kinds of waystations will be established. At this time, there are so few self-driving cars being tested on the roadways that we don’t know for sure what will be needed to scale-up the volume of self-driving cars for full deployment (see my analysis of the scale-up problem, at this link here).

Likewise, the self-driving cars being utilized are right now aimed at very short trips. The bathroom break is just not likely to arise during these existing tryouts. Only until there is a vast number of self-driving cars, and they are traveling greater distances, would the matter begin to become apparent.

As earlier stated, sometimes there are seemingly small things that can make a big difference in the world. Both children and adults can likely sympathize with the need to use a restroom, having undoubtedly found themselves in such a predicament at one point or another.

That’s something that no AI system is likely to experience, and we need to trust that the developers of AI will work behind-the-scenes to craft AI driving systems that can accommodate the needs of human passengers.

Can’t wait for that to happen.


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