Moving Automated Driving To the Next Level

If there had been a competition for world-class
back-seat drivers, my grandmother would have won it hands down.  Back in the 1980s when we were living
in Massachusetts, we drove to Boston’s Logan Airport and picked her up for a
visit.  Despite never having been
closer to New England than Ohio in her entire life, she immediately started
telling me which turns to take in downtown Boston as soon as I got lost, which
I always did anyway, but without her help.  We made it home, but not without lots of needless

Developers of what the Society of Automotive
Engineers (SAE) calls “automated driving” are facing the opposite
problem of back-seat driving in trying to get people in the front seat to pay
attention to the road while a robot does what the SAE calls “Level 3”
automatic driving. 

In a recent New
York Times
piece, tech writer John Markoff highlights the problems that
arise when autonomous vehicles are not yet capable of 100%
“hands-off” operation. 
Two or three years ago, the National Highway Traffic Safety
Administration (NHTSA) and SAE concurred on a classification scheme for
automated driving systems.  What
most people do now in older cars when they do all the driving themselves is
Level 0 (no automation).  Level 5
is a system that could adapt to any and all driving conditions with no input
whatsoever from the driver, who could therefore safely sleep or do crossword
puzzles for the whole trip.  No one
has yet been able to field a Level 5 system, but the standard assumes we will
eventually get there.  In between,
there are vehicles such as Tesla cars equipped with an autopilot system (Level
2), and the latest self-driving cars now being fielded by Google’s
autonomous-car spinoff Waymo (Level 4). 
But even Level 4 cars can’t cope with all situations, and when a driver
starts to treat a Level 2 system like it was Level 5, trouble lies ahead. 

The worst example so far of driver inattention while
riding in a partially autonomous vehicle happened in 2016, when a Tesla Model S
in Florida failed to detect a semi that suddenly crossed the vehicle’s
path.  Despite the fact that Tesla
warns the driver that he or she must be prepared to take evasive action in such
situations, he was apparently watching a video, which was the last thing he
saw, let us say.  This fatal
accident was the first such mishap in Tesla vehicles, which have since been
modified to test the driver’s attention periodically.  And if the driver isn’t paying consistent attention, the car
will terminate the autopilot feature for the rest of the trip, forcing the
driver to go back to work.

This is just one specific example of a general
problem with partially autonomous vehicles—say Levels 2 through 4.  They all require the driver to be
prepared to regain control of the vehicle in an emergency or other situation
that the robot driver can’t cope with. 
But as Markoff points out, going from sheer inattention to fully capable
operation of a motor vehicle in a few seconds is not something people do
particularly well.

Studies have shown that even with those who are mentally
prepared for the transition, it can take as long as five seconds to adjust to
the feel of the steering at a particular speed and get to the point where the
driver is truly in control and capable of dealing with problems.  Five seconds can be a longer time than
you have—a car traveling at 70 MPH will move over 500 feet (156 meters) in five
seconds.  If the potential problem
is only 200 feet away, by the time you’re ready to act it may well be too late.

Those wanting to deploy cars with more and more
autonomous features face a chicken-and-egg problem.  Everybody admits that as of today, there is no system in
which it is completely safe for the driver to act like he or she is at home in
bed.  But to get to that point, we
have to gain experience with less-than-perfect systems, which all require the
human driver’s input at some point. 
The issue then becomes how to accustom drivers to this wholly new mode
of “driving.”  And people
being people, they are not always going to follow instructions.  The man who lost his life in the Tesla
accident was told to keep his hands on the steering wheel at all times.  But he’d found that nothing bad
happened most of the time he didn’t, and so would many others unless the system
enforces attention in some way, which it now apparently does.

As for me, I may be fairly typical in that I am not
interested in automated driving systems until I can trust them at least as well
as I can trust my wife to drive—if not better.  We may be encountering a different form of what in
aesthetics is known as the “uncanny valley.”  Humanoid robots that look like classical
robots—hardware sticking out from their metal chests and so on—don’t bother us
particularly.  And a humanoid robot
that is such a good imitation of a human that you can’t tell the difference
between the robot and a real human presumably wouldn’t bother us too much
either.  But students of robotics
have found that “human-like” robots that are close to real humans, but not close
enough, give people the creeps.  And
it will give me the creeps, or worse, if I sit behind the wheel without
steering unless told to do so by a machine.

If I was sort of driving and sort of not driving a
car that was doing things in traffic that I couldn’t predict, and I was
constantly hoping I wouldn’t have to intervene but always wondering if
something was about to happen that would require me to grab the wheel—well, I
might as well quit my job and start teaching driver’s education at Nelson’s
Driving School for the Chronically Nervous.  Back when high schools were obliged to teach driver’s ed,
you would learn in a car equipped with two brake pedals, one on the passenger’s
side where the instructor sat.  My
instructor got to use her pedal more than once, and I can now only imagine what
torment she went through while she watched me move jerkily through
traffic.  If I was riding in
anything less than a Level 5 autonomous vehicle, I’d be in the same position as
my unfortunate driving instructor—all the time it was moving.

The prospects for autonomous driving hinge critically
on how manufacturers and developers will handle the next five or so years,
before truly autonomous (Level 5) driving is possible.  It may be the wisest thing to continue
mainly with experiments until automakers can say with reasonable confidence and
safety what the bus companies have been saying all along:  “Leave the driving to us.”

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