Behind the Wheel of a Self-Driving Car

Posted: November 1, 2017

An article in IEEE Spectrum, assuming that occupants of self-driving vehicles will retain some element of control over the box of steel transporting them, poses an interesting question: “How Should a Self-Driving Car Tell You to Take the Wheel?” The article contextualizes the question:

Someday, the word driver will connote something completely
different than it does today. When cars are fully automated
and don’t need us for anything more than letting them know
where to go, the job of a “driver” will be like that of a
patron in a bar selecting a song on a jukebox. But that
scenario, where the passenger cabin is a rolling lounge in
which all occupants are free to talk, entertain themselves
with electronic gadgets, or sleep, is still decades away.

Of course, as our blog has previously examined, the autonomous vehicle rollout will be incremental. Commentators believe this piecemeal approach will build on itself, displacing the motor vehicle “drivers” we know today with a gamut of sensors and cameras.

But we just aren’t there yet. Today’s autonomous technology retains the trappings of traditional automobile operation that we have known for over a century: A human being bearing the ability—and responsibility—to operate the car. Just look at the regulations proposed by the California DMV. These regulations, which require that all vehicles tested/operated in California be manned by a human being with the ability to take control at a moment’s notice, have engendered staunch opposition from Google.

But how, exactly, will the vehicle operator know—at a moment’s notice—that he or she should assume control of the car? The article explores the issue:

At those moments, it will look to a human to take charge.
But how will it grab my attention from my phone call or my
Netflix movie—or rouse me from sleep—and get me dialed into
the potential danger in time to avoid a crash? Because it’s
possible to miss an audible or visual alert if you’re
yakking away on a cellphone or engrossed in a car chase
scene in a James Bond movie, researchers are looking to add
another modality to take-over requests: vibrations in the
car seat or seatbelt.

According to a team of German researchers, the answer could be “vibrotactile dispays,” a fancy word for what seems, at its essence, like a rumbling seat. The article continues:

The transition from checking email to helming the vehicle
doesn’t happen instantly. On average, it takes about 0.8
seconds for a driver to shift attention so that his eyes
are on the road. But even after having receiving a tactile
warning and turning his or her focus toward the situation,
it still takes a moment before the driver has assessed the
situation enough to make a helpful response. But tactile
warnings, researchers have found, resulted in faster brake
reaction times than did, say, flashing lights, beeps, or a
computerized voice. Vibrations also spurred human drivers
to take the wheel and begin steering much more quickly than
did visual or auditory cues.


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