Self-Driving: The Human Factor

09/06/2016
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    An engineer at Audi goes “no hands” in a self-driving vehicle on an expressway in Virginia. (AP)
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    Hazards of self-driving cars are explained by an opponent at a public hearing in California. (AP)
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    Tesla Model S, the model being driven in autopilot mode during a fatal crash in May, 2016. (AP)
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    The dash display of a Tesla Model S during a demo of self-driving technology. (AP)
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    Google's self-driving prototype—the company opts for a “fully driverless” approach. (AP)
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The driverless car may be the car of the future. Many automakers and techno-geeks are working on increasingly automated driving systems. But even the most computerized system still needs backup—an alert driver. Are humans ready and willing to take control of “self-driving” cars if they need to? Research shows they’re not.

Joshua Brown, a tech company owner, was a big fan of driverless technology. His Tesla car’s Autopilot could steer itself within a lane. It could speed up or slow down based on surrounding traffic. It could change lanes, apply brakes, scan for parking spaces, and parallel park. Sadly, Brown died this summer when neither he nor his Tesla’s Autopilot braked for a truck.

Perhaps Brown didn’t see the truck. Or maybe he saw it too late. We can’t know for sure. Experts speculate Brown was relying on his car’s fancy automation. His mind was probably elsewhere.

“Drivers in these quasi- and partial modes of automation are a disaster in the making,” says Missy Cummings, director of Duke University's Humans and Autonomy Laboratory.

Pilots, engineers, and drivers can easily lose awareness of their surroundings when they turn over control, says Rob Molloy. He’s an investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board.

Planes and trains have had automation for about 30 years. Yet Molloy says, “There are still times when [people at the controls are] like, ‘Wow, we didn’t expect that to happen.’”

Some automakers may be rethinking their approach to self-driving. Two years ago, General Motors officials announced the company would start selling a Cadillac in 2016 that would almost drive itself. But the project has been delayed for an unnamed reason.

Meanwhile Google researchers are heading full speed toward a completely self-driving car—one without a steering wheel or brake pedals.

Experts call that scary. They think people’s skill with self-driving systems may be getting worse.

According to research, humans have a hard time concentrating on boring tasks. And monitoring controls that hardly require them to do anything is booooorrrring. God created the human brain to seek stimulation. Face it, if your mind isn’t busy, it wanders. It seeks something to think about.

“Go into Starbucks,” Cummings says. “No one can just patiently wait in line; they’re all doing something on their phones. It’s kind of pathetic.”

Maybe that’s one way to look at it. Or maybe, it illustrates a truth that the amazing human brain is made for mental stimulation and being put to use.