Last October as part of vehicle demonstrations during the Intelligent Transport Systems (ITS) World Congress in Melbourne, I travelled in an autonomous vehicle on closed roads around Albert Park Lake.
Previously I’d had been exposed to some rudimentary driver-assistance features - such as cruise control and blind-spot warnings so I expected that using automated features in a self-driving car, would be similar. In fact, that was not my experience.
There was enormous attention given to the interface between driver and machine. It was much more than just a few buttons or a warning light on the dashboard. A mix of different methods were used to indicate when the driver was controlling the vehicle and when the car was driving itself. These included combinations of brightly coloured lights on the steering wheel that changed colour. There were buttons, vibrations, sounds and lights on the dashboard. They were carefully designed to inform the driver when the vehicle could drive itself and how to enable this functionality.
Once the driver chose to hand over control to the vehicle, it was not a one-step action. It involved more than simply pushing a button or letting go of the steering wheel. In fact, there were a sequence of steps and countdown timers. Lights on the steering wheel made it clear when the driver relinquished control and the vehicle took over (and vice versa). More ambiguous was the time when the driver still held the steering wheel, before letting go. However, the interface made it easy to understand when the car took over. Once the driver let go of the steering wheel and the car was driving itself, it was obvious that the car was in control. This was clearly indicated to avoid any confusion.
At first, we drove along a relatively straight road and the vehicle made minor adjustments to stay in the lane. At that point, the automation seemed very subtle. Small movements of the steering wheel were barely even noticeable. At that point I could almost have forgotten that the vehicle was driving itself. Once we reached a sharp S-bend, it was a different story. The car slowed down and the steering wheel rotated almost all the way around and then back again by itself. It suddenly became more obvious (and a little bit confronting) to see that the car really was driving itself. After the initial excitement, it was surprising how quickly I became comfortable again.
To drive itself, the car has sensors in all external directions, to detect exactly where the vehicle is and avoid any obstacles on the road. Interestingly, the car also had a camera that looked back inside the vehicle to monitor the driver. This camera would look at the eyes of the driver. It kept track of where they looked, how often and long they blinked. This technology was designed to ensure that the driver was ready to take back control of the vehicle if required. For example, if the driver seemed drowsy, the vehicle would make a noise to alert them.
Much of the attention around automated vehicles focuses on the more provocative idea of fully automated and driverless vehicles chauffeuring people around. Naturally there will be a transition period before that point, during which we’ll have both automated and manually driven vehicles sharing the road. Drivers and vehicles will hand over control backwards and forwards, depending on the specific locations where cars are capable of safely driving in an automated mode.
It was reassuring to see the amount of attention being devoted to how this process will work safely and seamlessly. It was exciting to have had the opportunity to experience how it has been implemented by one automotive company.