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Self-Driving Cars: Study Finds Audio Pre-Alert Smooths Handoff of Control From Car to Driver

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author photo by Russ Heaps February 2017

Although virtually every expert agrees that fully self-driving cars will all but eliminate deaths, injuries and crashes caused by human error, nearly as many are certain that there may well be an uptick in all three before totally autonomous vehicles (AVs) arrive. The culprit in potentially adding to the mayhem on our roads will be SAE Level 3 technologies that require control be handed back and forth between the human driver and the autonomous system.

SAE Level 3 is conditional automation in which the system monitors its surroundings, controlling all driving functions with the expectation that the human will retake control when the vehicle requests driver intervention. Under certain conditions and in specific areas, the car is capable of totally driving itself, but if it encounters situations not covered by its programming or previously gathered data, it will call on the driver to retake control of all driving functions.

A recently published study by Microsoft Research and Ultrecht University in the Netherlands reveals that such transfers of control from the autonomous system to the human are much more successful if an audio alert sounds several seconds prior to the actual request that control be handed back to the human driver.

Weak Link

Sure, part of the motivation for developing self-driving cars is to provide humans with more leisure time. From work- and errand-related commutes to cross-country trips, driving time will convert to leisure time for reading a book, texting, watching a movie or whatever. However, another reason -- the reason the federal government is involving itself -- is the reduction of human-error-related crashes, injuries and deaths expected from fully automated cars. Getting humans out of the driver's seat will make roads safer.

That's all well and good in SAE Levels 4 and 5, where the vehicle operates on its own without any human intervention, but much less reliable in Level 3, where the human driver must stand by to retake control at a moment's notice. Humans are notoriously unreliable. And studies show that as humans become more comfortable with a technology, they tend to take it for granted. Moreover, in a Level 3 driving scenario, the human driver might be performing a secondary task, such as texting or reading.

As a human becomes more comfortable with an autonomous driving system having full control of the car, he or she is even more likely to engage in a secondary task and, relaxed, to be slower in responding to the vehicle's request that he or she retake control. That will spell big trouble. At 55 miles per hour, covering the length of a football field only requires 5 or 6 seconds. How many seconds do you think you would require to pull yourself away from reading a novel, look at your surroundings, evaluate the situation and act?

Pre-Request Alerts

Key here is giving the human more time to look at the road and evaluate the situation before retaking control. Although studies show that the longer a human is decoupled from driving responsibility, the more time he or she requires to respond and retake control even if watching the road, reaction time is significantly increased when the driver is performing a secondary function.

The Microsoft/Ultrecht University study measured its findings not on how long it took the driver to retake control, but on how long it took the driver to take the appropriate action (braking or steering) to address the issue. The study determined that a 20-second pre-alert did not eliminate dangerous incidents resulting from the handoff of control back to the human driver, but it did significantly reduce them.

Of course, the big but here is that every situation requiring the human to retake control won't be 20 or more seconds out. Many, however, will.

What it means to you: The debate over whether to skip Level 3 self-driving cars entirely rages on. More than likely, though, at least some carmakers will have Level 3 driving systems in the next year or two. It will be interesting.

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Self-Driving Cars: Study Finds Audio Pre-Alert Smooths Handoff of Control From Car to Driver - Autotrader