If you’re an avid reader of our blog, you may remember last month we looked at the 5 levels of autonomy in driverless vehicles. Buy a new car today and it’s very likely it will be equipped for level 2 autonomy. This means that the vehicles can simultaneously control steering and speed at the same time without driver intervention but cannot perform autonomously under all conditions. Functionality offered in level 2 cars includes parking assist, adapting cruise control, forward collision braking and lane assist. They’re all very useful features but ultimately, the key thinking behind level 2 is that the car is still very much reliant on the driver being mentally, and for a large proportion of the time, physically in control of the vehicle’s activities.
Move up to autonomous level 3 however, the level some manufacturers are aiming to achieve in the next 2-3 years, and the dynamics shift considerably. Driverless vehicles at this level have full autonomous functions in all driving conditions but may need to shift control back to the driver if they are unable to perform. It’s at this level according to industry experts, that the “driver” should be able to take his or her eyes off the road entirely and engage in other tasks such as texting, watching a film, putting on make-up or just enjoying the scenery. The idea is, that should the vehicle become involved in a predicament in which it is unable to resolve itself, an alarm sounds and the person in the driving seat immediately takes back control of the wheel and the situation.
But a fundamental flaw has been found in this ideology. We are after all, only human and as humans we are not particularly good at making immediate, cold, hard, logical decisions in the heat of the moment, particularly when we’re watching something good on TV. It’s a realisation that has been widely documented by the vehicle manufacturer Volvo. During testing, drivers in a simulator were given an iPad with a simple computer game to play as they sat behind the wheel. When an event took place that the autonomous software was unable to handle, the alarm sounded and what should have happened, was that the drivers jumped to attention and took control of the situation. What actually happened however, was that some of the drivers had become so engaged in the iPad game, their reaction and the time taken to engage with the road in front of them was delayed. The results were similar to those watching a film, putting on make-up or even texting. Now this delay may have only been for one or two seconds, but when a vehicle is travelling at 50 miles per hour, that’s about 45 metres in distance. Add on the time it would take a driver to absorb the situation in front of him/her once they’d looked up and then react to it and your vehicle could be as much as 200 metres further down the road and theoretically, 200 metres closer to whatever risk caused the alarm in the first place. In some instances, that could very well be a little too late.
So what is the answer then, you might be asking? Perhaps we simply need to maintain a ban on using electronic devices behind the wheel and expect drivers of level 3 driverless vehicles to simply sit back but maintain focus on the road ahead for the duration of the journey. Now that might sound reasonable but it’s harder than you might think. Next time you’re in the passenger seat of a vehicle, try maintaining your focus on the road ahead. I would be pleasantly surprised if you can keep it up for longer than 5 minutes without getting distracted by something in the car or outside of the passenger window. In fact, as far back as 2013, Google’s autonomous vehicle division (Waymo) came to the very same conclusion. They found drivers were quick to allow themselves to become distracted from the road and reengagement was slowed not just because of the distraction itself, but because the driver lacked contextual awareness once they had reconnected with the steering wheel. The longer the journey, the more disengaged a driver became to the point where some drivers even fell asleep whilst sitting behind the wheel.
Waymo’s conclusion was that level 3 autonomy should be bypassed entirely in favour of fully autonomous capabilities and that’s what they have been working on since. It’s taken a few more years, but many of the more traditional automotive manufacturers are now coming to the same conclusion and working on plans to take the driver completely out of the equation. Now that might sound like bad news for motoring enthusiasts like you and me, but with over 90% of all motoring accidents caused in some way by driver error, the roads will become a lot safer place for all of us when this finally comes in to play.
Fully autonomous vehicles are a few years down the road yet however and in the meantime it’s well worth investing in your own driving skills to minimise the risks inherent with driving on our busy roads today. Here at CAT Driver Training, we offer a range of one-on-one advanced driver training courses enabling you to maximise your skills and enjoyment behind the wheel. To learn more, why not call us for an informal chat today on 01234 757633 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.