Will autonomous cars make drivers complacent?

London
51° 30' 23.112" N, -0° 7' 37.956" E
10th Apr 2017
0
7

On the road, complacency is a killer, with a momentary lapse in concentration all it takes for an accident to happen. Yet, the UK government’s Lords Science and Technology Committee has recently noted that autonomous vehicles – the next great leap in automotive innovation – could lead to driver complacency. What does this mean for the world’s most eagerly anticipated technology?

The autonomous vehicle offers many reasons to be excited, potentially making your journeys shorter and safer, your insurance cheaper and your vehicle more efficient. With such a wealth of benefits seemingly just around the bend, it seems churlish to complain.

Yet, in order for autonomous vehicles to be properly embraced, consumers and automakers alike must be aware of the potential pitfalls that adoption represents, in particular during the first few years of the autonomous revolution, in which a mixture of manually-driven, semi-autonomous and fully autonomous cars will be occupying the roads.

Take the wheel

According to the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT), vehicles exist on a sliding scale of 0 – 5, with 0 representing no automation, and 5 representing a fully autonomous vehicle.

It is the numbers in the middle that have concerned the Lords Science and Technology Committee, with fears arising that a driver in a semi-automated vehicle would be unprepared to take the wheel should the need arise.

This is a perfectly understandable fear – picture yourself in a semi-autonomous vehicle, hands off the wheel as it drives you serenely down a country road. You’re chatting with your friends, perhaps even looking around your shoulder to address somebody in the backseat. If, in those few seconds, an incident occurred on the road and you had to immediately take control of the vehicle, would you be prepared to? It seems unlikely.

However, manual override is an absolute necessity in the early years of autonomous vehicle adoption, where the technology required for full autonomy may still be in development, and consumer trust must be earned.

In a recent HERE study, we found that trust was the number one obstacle for consumers looking to adopt autonomous vehicles. This should come as no surprise given news reports of autonomous vehicles crashing, and potential risks of malware and hackers gaining access to your shiny new driverless car. Manual override, then, is vital to offering drivers a sense of control. But what if they’re not ready to take it back?

We’re walking here

Complacency also exists outside of the car, with pedestrians often guilty of ambling out to cross the road without checking properly, or assuming a vehicle has spotted them at a crossing. This, according to the Lords Science and Technology Committee, is at risk of getting worse with the dawn of the autonomous vehicle.

The report quotes Professor Nick Reed, Academy Director at the Transport Research Laboratory, who says “pedestrians, cyclists, sensory impaired groups and other road users may also need to adapt their behaviour and expectations to accommodate the conduct of the various types of automated vehicle.”

Then an example is offered, of pedestrians who assume a vehicle on the road is autonomous and will simply avoid them, allowing them to cross the road at any point. This, of course, would not work, regardless of the vehicle being autonomous or manual.

Solutions to such problems have already been in the works, with one company developing a smiling car, which offers visual cues to inform pedestrians of when it’s safe to cross the roads.

Indeed, while the findings from the committee may sound damning, there is light at the end of the tunnel, with the simple fact that these issues can be addressed by offering drivers and pedestrians alike a greater understanding of autonomous vehicles.

The committee’s report calls for more comprehensive testing to take place in the UK, and with the Department for Transport recently committing over £200m to research and development of the autonomous vehicle, it may just get its wish.

In the meantime, we can continue to grow excited for an autonomous future, though with the caveat that the road to innovation doesn’t always run smooth.

How will you react when fully autonomous vehicles are on the road?