Driver distraction fears for autonomous cars

November 30, 2016

People quickly adapt to autonomous vehicles and trust them to take control of driving, a new study has found. However, it warns that people often panic and are slow to respond when the vehicle needs to hand back control to the driver.

Professor Sarah Sharples, professor of human factors at Nottingham University, revealed the challenge facing car manufacturers at a presentation to members of the UK’s House of Lords, where a committee is investigating autonomous cars.

Sharples used a driving simulator to test how drivers’ attitudes changed over a five-day period. Drivers used the simulator every day for 30 minutes along a motorway route set to mimic a daily commute.

They were told the vehicle would be put into fully-autonomous mode two to three minutes after setting off.

She revealed that as drivers trusted the technology more, they became more disengaged from the driving experience once the car was in autonomous mode, with some watching films on their phones or reading.

Sharples said: ‘People very quickly became accustomed to and began to trust the autonomous technology.’

On day four of the five-day study, an emergency handover request on screen asked passengers to take back manual control of the vehicle.

None of the drivers noticed the display and panicked when they realised they needed to start driving again.

Sharples said the experiment highlighted the need for deeper understanding of scenarios drivers might face and how to effectively notify drivers without causing them to panic.

She added: ‘One of the most important things we need to understand is [the impact] increasing levels of autonomy in the driving task will have on maintaining vigilance and being able to respond to an emergency situation.’

The study highlights the difficulty facing manufacturers as they introduce varying levels of self-driving technology in the coming years. Senior industry executives have talked about the benefits of autonomous cars freeing up time to read or watch a movie while commuting.

However, recent fatal accidents involving Teslas with self-driving features raised concerns that drivers were unaware of approaching hazards because they had stopped paying attention to the road.

Professor Wolfgang Wahlster, chief executive officer of the German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence, recently suggested that autonomous cars may need to hand control to an external ‘driver’ in the event of emergencies.

So-called ‘guardian angels’ would take control of a car if the autonomous system was active and needed to hand back control to the driver in the vehicle, but the vehicle detected that they were asleep or incapacitated in some way.

Manufacturers also need to consider how drivers will adapt if they often switch between autonomous cars and other vehicles without self-driving features.

For example, there may need to be clear warnings on cruise control systems pointing out that they do not provide self-driving functionality.

Autovista Intelligence’s Autonomous Car report also warns that manufacturers will have to completely review their used car sales processes.

They will need to consider whether used autonomous vehicles will only be sold through the manufacturer’s own franchised dealer network and decide how consumers need to be educated about the differences in buying a used autonomous vehicle, compared with a traditional one.

Other factors include checking the nature of data protection disclosures and that all software updates have been installed.

More on the autonomous car..

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