How connected and autonomous vehicle safety extends beyond the technology

15 June 2017

15 June 2017

Will the connected and autonomous car be a help or hindrance to our way of life? It is a question that is being asked while trials of the vehicles commence on roads around Europe. Aside from the increased number of systems that drivers can use, there is also the question of how humans will cope when control is handed back to them.

Speaking at the Company Car in Action (CCIA) event held at the Millbrook Proving Ground in the UK, Rebecca Ashton, Head of Driver Behaviour at IAM RoadSmart, comments: ′We no longer need to have a handheld phone while in a vehicle, instead, everything happens through Bluetooth or a direct connection between car and device. However it is still a distraction, our brains allow us to only do one thing at a time. Therefore, while we welcome new technology in connected vehicles, we have to be cautious about how it can affect our safety.

′As an example, most companies have a policy for mobile phone usage in a vehicle, either stating that they are not to be used, or they can only be used with a hands free kit. Yet there is so much more technology coming in, with systems allowing app usage in vehicle as well. Has this been incorporated into documents, and should it? The mobile phone is more than a calling device these days. Some apps may need to be accessed but it must be controlled.’

Systems such as Apple’s CarPlay and Android Auto allow for connection between vehicle and mobile device, with apps playing out on the car’s infotainment console. This can allow for mapping and entertainment services, as well as connection with Facebook and Twitter to be made. For business users, it also allows access to phonebooks and emails on the move. Yet all this adds a distraction beyond the physical phone itself, information will be on the car’s own screen, similar to a radio station and music list. Is this technically within the rules of the road, not using a handheld device?

There is also the question of behaviour. Ashton adds: ′As a person who is interested in driving behaviour, the question is how are we going to behave towards them? If I’m going along and I know the car I need to push in front of is autonomous and will stop and let me in, am I going to ′bully’ that car? There are some real debates to have about what we will do and how we will behave towards them. It is a whole education that this technology is there for safety rather than for us to push to our limits.’

Adam Jefferson, specialist – cross car at SBD Automotive also raised a point about drivers taking control, saying: ′Some are arguing that we need to move directly from level 2 autonomy to level 4, so the car has full control in certain road situations. The problem is, when the car hands control back to the driver, there is a massive problem with attention. It can take up to a minute for a driver to regain full control of the vehicle and that is a big issue. In that time the car could be easily crashed. This is another area that needs to be explored, otherwise we risk the cars being ready, but not the drivers of them. There will need to be additions to the driving test to ensure that we can cope with such a situation.’

Ashton adds: ′There is going to be a time where the car will hand back to the human, and are we ready for this? It is the last mile of the journey through country lanes, am I tired from the journey? Is the car handing back to us at the most dangerous time? Does the driver need to remain alert throughout the journey?’

There is another issue surrounding interaction between the public and a driverless car. Imagine the streets on the cities of tomorrow, full of autonomous vehicles going about their business. Where does the pedestrian fit into all of this and will it change their behaviour? If we know a car will automatically stop for us then what is the point in looking both ways? However, then a car may come along that is not autonomous and an accident will occur.

There is also concern about cyclists. Being small and agile, they represent a unique challenge for autonomous vehicles, due to their changes in speed and size, as well as the many different shapes of bicycle. The Guardian newspaper reports that Deep3DBox, a programme designed to identify 3D objects from 2D images, such as camera footage, is the most successful at doing this; yet it only spots a cyclist in 74% of cases, and correctly predicts the direction they are facing just 59% of the time. Poor weather makes detection even less accurate.

Google, which has been conducting trials through its spin-out company Waymo, has acknowledged that it is hard for others to anticipate cyclists’ movements. The company has taught its cars to recognise cyclists’ hand signals, different sizes and shapes of bike, and allows them more space on the road  but they can only do this when cyclists are respecting the proper rules of the road.

It is clear that while there is a lot of work to be done to make sure that driverless cars are up to spec on safety when out on the roads, there is much more to be done with infrastructure to ensure that drivers and other road users are safe at all times as well. Solving the problems of self-driving cars is one that will take as long as developing the technology itself.

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