Recent surges in car crashes and the reality that your phone is now the “remote control” for your life suggest that driving may rapidly become the secondary task in the vehicle.
Autonomy is poised to disrupt the automotive industry as we know it today. Large technology players, nuanced startups, automotive manufacturers and suppliers are developing automated driving features and driverless vehicles that have the potential to reshape how we live and move.
The technology brings with it the promise of fewer crashes and minimized harm once fully developed. In a fully automated future there is the potential for redistributing time towards activities that promote greater productivity and quality of life. However, that reality is not yet here, and the schedule for getting there is far from certain. In the meantime, autonomy-involved fatalities, lawsuits around automated vehicles, and legislative discussions at the state and federal level dominate the news.
While automation is a topic of explosive attention today, long before the hype, it had a role in automotive safety. Sensing and actuation, the key building blocks of automation, have long been deployed in systems such as automatic transmissions, antilock brakes, and electronic stability control. What has changed is the extent to which we are inviting the reduction of driver involvement in vehicle control.
There is mounting evidence from naturalistic studies that suggest today’s drivers are engaging in an increasing array of distracting secondary tasks. Casual observation of drivers on any given morning commute anecdotally confirms that these studies may in fact under-represent the scale of the current problem. Recent surges in auto crash frequencies and severity, dramatic gains in smartphone ownership among American adults, and a daily teen and adult reality in which the smartphone has become a “remote control” for one’s life suggest that driving may rapidly become the secondary task in the vehicle.
With such a reality staring us in the face, we may think that autonomy cannot come soon enough to save us from ourselves.Automatic Emergency Braking (AEB) may substantially reduce the severity and frequency of distracted drivers rear-ending others on the road—for now. But how this and other technologies impact risk where our attention is drawn more and more to our smartphones is unknown.
What is possible, is that with each new layer of protection, we are likely to take some or all of the added safety benefits and offset them by engaging in more and more non-driving activities. In essence, we threaten to make mobility about how many things other than driving we can cram into our lives on the road and forfeit the safety benefits.
“We threaten to make mobility about how many things other than driving we can cram into our lives on the road and forfeit the safety benefits.”
As the industry continues to build out its autonomous technology for active safety and collaborative control, we are invited to join pilots, refinery operators, and others who have preceded us into an automated future in becoming collaborative partners with the machine. We are becoming system monitors who ‘pretend to drive’ or remain engaged nearly passively in the driving task. While it is plausible that innovative system designs can encourage a robot-human collaboration that improves safety, many efforts will likely fall short of meeting such expectations. There will be a, potentially painful, learning curve.