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Self-Driving Cars: The Transition From Autonomous Steering to Human Control May Be Rocky

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author photo by Russ Heaps January 2017

When it comes to self-driving cars, there are some experts who doubt we'll ever see full automation as defined by the 6-tier SAE International's Levels of Driving Automation for On-Road Vehicles. That is, "The full-time performance by an automated driving system of all aspects of the dynamic driving task under all roadway and environmental conditions that can be managed by a human driver." Such vehicles might not even have steering wheels and pedals.

Influencing these skeptics isn't necessarily a lack of confidence in future technology and software, but questions regarding other factors, such as mapping, regulatory and insurance issues, and the coexistence of automated and non-automated vehicles, like bicycles and motorcycles, on the roadways.

Most of those question marks involve the human element of the automation equation, which is the wild card in the progress toward self-driving cars. In fact, the human element looms so large in implementing autonomous technology that a large swath of experts surmise that human shortcomings may require skipping SAE Level 3 entirely. A recently published study reported in the Standford News seems to support that argument.

SAE Level 3

SAE Level 3 is where software and humans integrate or collide, depending on the expert describing the process. In SAE International's list of definitions, it is called Conditional Automation. Think of it as the vehicle being able to monitor its surroundings and drive itself in specific situations, such as on a limited-access highway, with the expectation that a human driver will spring into action, re-assuming control at the vehicle's request.

At Level 3, once automation is engaged, the vehicle can handle all aspects of driving until encountering something unexpected, such as a road-construction area, a flooded highway or an accident. When faced with an incident beyond its programming or experience, the automation system will alert the driver to retake control. Ideally, at that moment the driver will assume all driving tasks in order to deal with whatever the situation might be.

Human Factor

Humans are, well, human. Last summer a disengaged driver in Florida, overestimating the capability of the Autopilot automated-driving system in his Tesla, plowed into the side of a semi without even touching the brakes. Humans are simply unreliable. In 2014, nearly 3,200 people were killed and another 431,000 injured in accidents involving distracted drivers -- drivers who were actually supposed to be actively driving their vehicle.

To date, most concerns regarding the human factor in autonomous vehicles (AVs) have revolved around AVs safely integrating into human-driver traffic, and the seamless, safe handoff of vehicle control from vehicle back to human.

At Level 3, the human driver is the linchpin for this level of autonomy to work smoothly and safely. Fears have been that a driver, busy reading a book, paying bills or texting as the autonomous system drives the car, won't respond quickly enough to a request by the vehicle to re-assume control to avert whatever danger the vehicle senses. As the driver re-engages, he must immediately evaluate his surroundings, determine the vehicle's place in those surroundings, analyze whatever the danger might be and finally determine a safe course of action. At 55 miles per hour, you might travel the length of a football field before taking action. The longer a driver is disengaged from the driving function, the longer the re-engagement process may take.

The study reported in the Standford News, however, indicates that even when a driver is aware he or she must retake control and make a steering maneuver, that driver is likely to steer somewhat erratically when retaking control.

Study Results

The study required participants to drive a 15-second course in a car in which the steering ratio could be remotely changed to mimic the quicker steering response at higher speeds. All the drivers were advised that after several laps of the car driving itself, control would be returned to them and they would have to make steering adjustments to avoid obstacles placed on the course.

Even with such warnings, the participants required a few seconds to gain control of the steering and adjusted to the steering response at various speeds. Although the steering never became erratic enough to cause a car to veer off the course, the drivers did require a couple of beats to get full control of the steering.

What it means to you: The time for the drivers in the study to adjust didn't cause any real danger on that closed, controlled course, but in real-world traffic, a second or two is all it takes to crash. Just ask one of the distracted drivers responsible for one of those 431,000 traffic-accident injuries.

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Self-Driving Cars: The Transition From Autonomous Steering to Human Control May Be Rocky - Autotrader