Author Bio ▼

Jamie Hailstone is a freelance journalist and author, who has also contributed to numerous national business titles including Utility Week, the Municipal Journal, Environment Journal and consumer titles such as Classic Rock.
April 30, 2018

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Driverless Cars

Would you trust an autonomous car to keep you safe?

If you grew up in the 1980s, then you may have watched a television series called Knightrider.

If you grew up in the 1980s, then you may have watched a television series called Knightrider.

Every week, Michael Knight – played by the legend that is David Hasselhoff – fought for truth, justice and the American way, aided and abetted by an autonomous car, called KITT, which always kept him safe.

What was science fiction back in the 1980s is now science fact and semi-autonomous cars are already on the road in the UK, with highly autonomous cars in development.

But following a series of high profile accidents, including the death of a woman in Arizona last month after being struck by a self-driving Uber car, raised fresh questions have been raised about the safety of autonomous vehicles.

Safety – onus on the driver

A new study by academics and engineers from Cambridge and Southampton universities, has examined manufacturers can make these new autonomous and semi-autonomous cars safer to use for drivers and help them trust these new systems.

Speaking to SHP Online, Dr Kirsten Revell, who is from the Human Factors Engineering Team at the University of Southampton and also a member of the Chartered Institute of Ergonomics and Human Factors, said even with semi-autonomous cars, the onus is still on the human driver to make sure the automation is safe and to make sure other road users are safe.

“The way automation is marketed is very much is with phrases like auto-pilot, which sounds like the autopilot in an aeroplane,” says Dr Revell.

“When in autopilot mode in an aeroplane you can do other tasks – but in semi – autonomous vehicles you are still in an active monitoring mode which means you can’t do other things.

“The responsibility on the driver [in a semi-autonomous car] is often hidden in a long and wieldy manual, or in an optional training interface in the dashboard, so the excited driver of an autonomous car as it is sold to them is not really forced to understand what they need to do.

“We advocate there will need to be some learning, training or a test for people in autonomous vehicles in the future,” adds Dr Revell.

Research study

The study itself looked at six British drivers, who all used a Mercedes S Class with pilot assist features in real world situations.

The semi-autonomous system in the Mercedes S Class includes two short-range sensors and a long-range radar system to maintain a safe distance from the vehicle in front and brake when necessary and accelerate again when traffic conditions permit.

Dr Revell says there were “issues and different expectations” about how the car would behave in certain situations, such as wanting to overtake a lorry after being stuck behind it for some time.

“The way the automation control was activated was through a stalk, very similar to the indicator stalk, she adds.

“Moving it up and down activated the automation and we found there were many occasions when somebody was in manual mode, driving out of a car park and trying to move ahead, and they were just trying to indicate and they accidentally activated the automation mode. We want to highlight that controllers used to activate automation should be designed in a distinguishable way from existing controls.”

Dr Revell says several of the drivers also had difficulty telling if the automation mode was on or not, which was signalled by a small icon on the steering wheel, which goes from grey to green.

“We found in bright sunshine in one of our studies, we couldn’t actually distinguish when the colour changed on the steering wheel, so you were unable to tell whether the automation had popped out, which means you had to start steering again or even if automation was available.

“The driver spent a lot of time having a look, seeing if it was green or not green. So, the focus was on working out what was possible, rather than looking at the road ahead.”

Dr Revell adds that the semi-autonomous mode on the Mercedes model performed well on highways, but was not intended to be used in the same way for urban roads.

“It was less about whether the drivers thought it was safe, it was very much that they thought it would be consistent and it’s actually quite inconsistent.”

Clear communication needed

She says car manufacturers will need to be clear about the capability or autonomous and semi-autonomous cars going forward.

“You have also got to be really clear about what the driver is allowed to do in automation mode,” she explains.

“The expectation is in higher levels of semi-detached autonomous cars, that drivers should then be allowed to use a tablet or do another task and not monitor the automation. But everyone is incredibly vague about what that means. Manufacturers are quite vague, because they do not know themselves. They are not clear about whether you can take a long in-depth call or check a few messages, and whether you can completely duck out or whether you have to keep checking in now and then.

“More research needs to be done about how disengaged you can be, or how quickly you can come back into control if the automation needs you to take over.”

She adds car manufacturers also need to look how to make the intentions of the autonomous car clearer to the driver.

“If for example, you are in automated mode and doing another job, we would suggest if a car produced a large acceleration or deceleration, then from our research we found the driver wants to be given some information. It could give a audio message to say I’m just slowing down or a graphical representation, so the driver is reassured.”

“There’s a big debate about how you will be able to do secondary tasks in a car,” she adds. “New legislation suggests this will initially only be on in-car systems, rather than being allowed to use your own device or mobile phone. There are ideas about having your own devices linked to the vehicle so you get alerts about what is going on and when you need to get back into control”

She adds are now examining how drivers reacted to using a Tesla semi-autonomous car and are hoping to do a series of studies with a wider age range of people later this year.

“Semi-autonomous cars are already on the road,” she adds. “This is something that will continue and could be incredibly exciting if done in the right way. At the moment, semi – automation is a luxury feature. But if we see widespread adoption and reach the stage where fully autonomous vehicles are on the road, so there is no need for a driver at all, it could be fantastic. Disabled people, children and people restricted from making journeys could all be able to benefit. I think there is a positive outlook, which is not restricted to safety.”

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