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Pedestrians aren't always paying attention. Photo: Ford

Researchers at the University of Michigan are studying human body language to teach self-driving cars to recognize and predict pedestrian movements with greater precision than current technologies.

Why it matters: People don't always pay attention when crossing the street, so AVs need to be on the lookout for distracted pedestrians, not just other cars on the road.

"If a pedestrian is playing with their phone, you know they're distracted. Their pose and where they're looking is telling you a lot about their level of attentiveness. It's also telling you a lot about what they're capable of doing next."
— Ram Vasudevan, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, Michigan

How it works: Using data collected by vehicles through cameras, lidar and GPS, the researchers captured video snippets of humans in motion and then recreated them in 3D computer simulation.

  • This enabled them to create a "biomechanically inspired recurrent neural network" that catalogs human movements.
  • By focusing on humans' gait, body symmetry and foot placement, they can predict what pedestrians might do next and train self-driving cars to recognize behavior.

Background: Until now, most machine learning for AVs has relied on still images.

  • If you show a computer enough photos of a stop sign it will eventually come to recognize stop signs in the real world.

What's next: By using video clips that run for several seconds, Michigan's system can study the first half of the snippet to make its predictions, and then verify the accuracy with the second half.

  • The researchers said they could predict a pedestrian's location within 10 centimeters after one second and less than 80 centimeters after 6 seconds. All other comparison methods were up to 7 meters off.
  • "We're [now] better at figuring out where a person is going to be," says Matthew Johnson-Roberson, associate professor in Michigan's naval architecture and marine engineering department.

Go deeper

Senate Democrats reach deal on extending unemployment insurance

Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Senate Democrats struck a deal Friday evening to extend unemployment insurance in President Biden's $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package after deliberating and halting other action for roughly nine hours, per a Senate aide.

Why it matters: The Senate can now resume voting on other amendments to the broader rescue bill.

Capitol review panel recommends more police, mobile fencing

Photo: Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images

A panel appointed by Congress to review security measures at the Capitol is recommending several changes, including mobile fencing and a bigger Capitol police force, to safeguard the area after a riotous mob breached the building on Jan. 6.

Why it matters: Law enforcement officials have warned there could be new plots to attack the area and target lawmakers, including during a speech President Biden is expected to give to a joint session of Congress.

Financial fallout from the Texas deep freeze

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Texas has thawed out after an Arctic freeze last month threw the state into a power crisis. But the financial turmoil from power grid shock is just starting to take shape.

Why it matters: In total, electricity companies are billions of dollars short on the post-storm payments they now owe to the state's grid operator. There's no clear path for how they will pay — something being watched closely across the country as extreme weather events become more common.

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