Ask Fuzzy: Where are the self-driving cars? Part 2 - people.

Humans will be part of the mix for the foreseeable future: Picture: Shutterstock
Humans will be part of the mix for the foreseeable future: Picture: Shutterstock

Last week we described some of the formidable technical challenges facing driverless cars.

At the end of 2020, Uber sold off its plans for self-driving taxis for about $4 billion, roughly half what it was valued in 2019. That suggests we might be close to The Peak of Inflated Expectations on the Gartner Hype Cycle.

As with so many other innovations, attention focuses on technology rather than people. However you can't solve one without the other.

A completely automated transport solution might work, but for the foreseeable future, humans will be part of the mix. There will still be humans operating other cars, trucks and busses.

And while humans staring at smartphones might appear automated, pedestrians and cyclists will be around for as long as we have traffic. That includes the chaotic, unpredictable things they do.

Not least of these is the behaviour of a driver behind the wheel. It is well proven that a person will find ways to occupy themselves up to a certain level of comfort. They will do that regardless of whether the task is concentrating on driving or checking their social media.

Already our attention is being drawn away from managing the job of driving, to managing the electronics. Inside a car are warnings, buzzers and map navigation. ABS and lane tracking automation push driving tasks into the background, encouraging us to find other things to think about.

This raises the question of what happens in an emergency, when the computer - assuming it does - realises it needs human intervention.

That is also a legal requirement, adding another complication: what is an 'emergency'?

Reaction time in a vehicle is around 1.5 seconds, but this varies enormously and depends on a range of psychological and technical factors. A crucial one is whether the driver is paying attention.

In a fully autonomous vehicle (level 4 or 5), the driver may be reading a science column or playing with their smartphone.

Research shows it might take a human 15 seconds to assess the situation before responding - by which time, of course, it's too late.

It's also easy to forget that traffic is also a social environment. When a pedestrian waves at a car, are they encouraging it to pass or are they ordering two cups of coffee? And if the car pauses, will other drivers understand or will they become frustrated?

Driving is as much a psychological experience as it is an engineering one, and arguably more so.

Whether or not you're comfortable with the idea of being driven around by a robot, it would be good to reduce the road toll. The WHO estimates that about 1.35 million people die each year worldwide in crashes.

The Fuzzy Logic Science Show is 11am Sundays on 2xx 98.3FM.

Send your questions to Twitter @FuzzyLogicSci Podcast

This story Where are the self-driving cars? Part 2 - people. first appeared on The Canberra Times.