Self-Driving Cars: Don’t Forget the Human Factors
By Jim Motavalli
At a recent conference in Miami, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick started talking about his company’s drivers—or maybe, soon to be ex-drivers. When his Uber fleet is composed entirely of autonomous cars, he said, there will be “vocational periods, education and transition periods” for them to find new jobs.
A “self-driving” Google car still has somebody behind the wheel. We’re not sitting in the back yet, so we need human rules. (Travis Wise/Flickr)
Oh c’mon. It’s way too premature to talk about this. We’re focusing on autonomous cars and the paradise to come, with the people formerly known as drivers sitting in the back seat and texting away. We all know it won’t actually happen that way—there will be a long transition period, where we’ll still be behind the wheel, and very involved. Let’s talk about that.
Tests of autonomous Buick LeSabres by the Department of Transportation and GM in 1997 (using magnetic guide strips in the road) failed for a simple reason—people weren’t ready to take back human control after the car had been driving itself. That’s dangerous, and it’s a problem that’s still with us.
The technology on cars right now (think the Tesla Model S, the Volvo XC-90, assorted Mercedes-Benzes—is asking us to switch from car control (on highways, mostly) back to driver control. I’ve done it, and it’s a bit unnerving. We need more familiarity with the technology, then it will become second nature.
A self-driving Volvo XC90 makes a splash in Los Angeles. Again, a driver is in place. (LA DOT/Flickr)
Believe it or not, car companies have to be licensed (by the states) to drive autonomously, and the test pilots need to be certified on some basics. In California, you need a to have a clean driving record (for three years) and get training, and the company you drive for needs to have $5 million in insurance or post a bond. Mercedes, Google, Tesla, Delphi and Audi have all gone through that procedure in California. As you may have heard, the downer is that self-driving cars have been in a bunch of accidents; the upper is that none of them (or their drivers) were at fault. Blame rubberneckers, for a start.
Although states run their own motor vehicle departments, this might be an area where there’s one federal test for autonomous drivers. The goal is everybody following the same rules, says Steven Shladover, a University of California at Berkeley professor who works on intelligent transportation.
Here’s the Google car that will finally dispense with the driver altogether. (Google photo)
Youtube is full of videos of people basically winging it with self-driving technology. Not good, I say. The irony here is that driver training is needed at the very time driver’s education—the traditional form—is withering away. According to MarketWatch, revenue from driving schools is down because they’re not profitable. And 13 states aren’t even requiring kids take full driver’s ed classes. Have you noticed that most millennials can’t drive a stick shift or change a tire?
Problems with human drivers and semi-autonomous cars is why Ford is talking about skipping the interim steps with people behind the wheel and go right to (in five years or so) fully automatic cars that take drivers out of the equation completely. The big problem, said Wired, is “how to safely transfer control from the computer to the driver, particularly in an emergency….Audi says its tests show it takes an average of three to seven seconds, and as long as 10, for a driver to snap to attention and take control, even with flashing lights and verbal warnings.” Definitely—remember those old Buicks?
The tricky issue of liability—to my mind the biggest hindrance to self-driving cars—also rears its head here. Would courts of law end up haggling over who was in control at the time of the accident, the car or the driver? It’s simpler, legally, it the car is always in charge—and responsible, too.
California is also talking about establishing further, more complex rules for self-driving drivers. As IEEE Spectrum puts it, the challenge is training drivers how not to drive. Classes (and on-the-road training) could focus on, for instance, developing faster reactions to emergency situations, including computer meltdowns.
It could be a steep learning curve. Professor Patrick Lin of California Polytechnic warns, “Humans aren’t hardwired to sit and monitor a system for long periods of time and then quickly react properly when an emergency happens.” In other words, we get bored and distracted.
Popular Mechanics warns, “A semi-autonomous car can’t be left unattended. And the chances of someone falling asleep is a serious concern for carmakers.” That’s why they’re developing sensors to watch your eye movements for signs of drowsiness.
Not everyone thinks more training is in order. A recent British government report predicted that people won’t need driver’s licenses at all for self-driving cars. I disagree. I think that as long as humans have any involvement in driving the car, they need to train and pass tests, and I think the tests should be even more stringent if we’re only in control part time.
Keep in mind that as cars do some or most of the driving, our human skills behind the wheel will begin to atrophy. So in this interim period, we need to figure out new ways to stay sharp.
Here, on video, is what it’s like to pilot a self-driving Tesla Model S for the first time: