Plans for self-driv­ing cars have pit­fall: the hu­man brain

The Hamilton Spectator - - BUSINESS - JOAN LOWY

WASH­ING­TON — Ex­perts say the de­vel­op­ment of self-driv­ing cars over the com­ing decade de­pends on an un­re­li­able as­sump­tion by many automakers: that the hu­mans in them will be ready to step in and take con­trol if the car’s sys­tems fail.

In­stead, ex­pe­ri­ence with automation in other modes of trans­porta­tion like avi­a­tion and rail sug­gests that the strat­egy will lead to more deaths like that of a Florida Tesla driver in May.

Decades of re­search shows that peo­ple have a dif­fi­cult time keep­ing their minds on bor­ing tasks like mon­i­tor­ing sys­tems that rarely fail and hardly ever re­quire them to take ac­tion. The hu­man brain con­tin­u­ally seeks stim­u­la­tion. If the mind isn’t en­gaged, it will wan­der un­til it finds some­thing more in­ter­est­ing to think about. The more re­li­able the sys­tem, the more likely it is that at­ten­tion will wane.

Automakers are in the process of adding in­creas­ingly au­to­mated sys­tems that ef­fec­tively drive cars in some or most cir­cum­stances, but still re­quire the driver as a backup in case the ve­hi­cle en­coun­ters a sit­u­a­tion unan­tic­i­pated by its en­gi­neers.

Tesla’s Au­topi­lot, for ex­am­ple, can steer it­self within a lane and speed up or slow down based on sur­round­ing traf­fic or on the driver’s set speed. It can change lanes with a flip of its sig­nal, au­to­mat­i­cally ap­ply brakes, or scan for park­ing spa­ces and par­al­lel park on com­mand.

Joshua Brown, a 40-year-old tech com­pany owner from Can­ton, Ohio, who was an en­thu­si­as­tic fan of the tech­nol­ogy, was killed when nei­ther he nor his Tesla Model S sedan’s Au­topi­lot braked for a truck mak­ing a left turn on a high­way near Gainesville, ac­cord­ing to fed­eral in­ves­ti­ga­tors and the au­tomaker.

Tesla warns driv­ers to keep their hands on the wheel even though Au­topi­lot is driv­ing, or the ve­hi­cle will au­to­mat­i­cally slow to a stop. A self-driv­ing sys­tem Audi plans to in­tro­duce in its 2018 A7 mon­i­tors driv­ers’ head and eye move­ments, and au­to­mat­i­cally slows the car if the driver’s at­ten­tion is di­verted.

But Brown’s fail­ure to brake means he ei­ther didn’t see the truck in his path or saw it too late to re­spond — an in­di­ca­tion he was re­ly­ing on the automation and his mind was else­where, said Missy Cum­mings, di­rec­tor of Duke Univer­sity’s Hu­mans and Au­ton­omy Lab­o­ra­tory. The truck driver said he had heard a Harry Pot­ter video play­ing in the car af­ter the crash.

“Driv­ers in th­ese quasi- and par­tial modes of automation are a dis­as­ter in the mak­ing,” Cum­mings said. “If you have to rely on the hu­man to see some­thing and take ac­tion in any­thing less than sev­eral sec­onds, you are go­ing to have an ac­ci­dent like we saw.”

Part of the prob­lem is over­con­fi­dence in the tech­nol­ogy causes peo­ple to think they can check out. Not long af­ter Tesla in­tro­duced Au­topi­lot, peo­ple were post­ing videos of car with the self-driv­ing mode en­gaged cruis­ing down tree­lined roads or even high­ways with no one in the driver’s seat.

SPENCER PLATT, GETTY IM­AGES

Tesla’s Au­topi­lot can steer it­self within a lane and speed up or slow down based on sur­round­ing traf­fic.

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