Ride Guide: Transitioning To Autonomy And Human Car Interface

can be reached at meehna@gmail.com
can be reached at meehna@gmail.com
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For over 130 years, we’ve interacted with our cars in the same way. We were the absolute boss. The car couldn’t make a move without us.

  • The car world is quickly transitioning from independence to autonomy.
  • SAE defines autonomy in levels 0-5, we’re currently sit at levels 1 -2.
  • Some manufacturers are skipping level 3, which requires human intervention.
  • Eventually, the transition to full autonomy will let humans reclaim time currently lost to commuting.

Now we’re shifting into an era where cars are taking control of the driving. It’s both an exciting and scary time. Advancing technology offers the promise of cleaning up our air, making our lives easier and safer, while also giving back the precious commodity of time. But, it also brings up issues about our relationship with cars.

As cars take over the driving duties, the way we interact with them is evolving. There’s a whole branch of study in the auto industry dedicated to Human Machine Interface (HMI).

Photo by Axel Antas-Bergkvist on Unsplash

Kristin Kolodge knows a thing or two about HMI. She’s the Executive Director, Driver Interaction and Human Machine Interface at J.D. Power. For over 20 years she’s been studying the interaction between people and their cars. Before coming aboard J.D. Power in 2014, she spent the majority of her 18 years at Fiat Chrysler developing automotive features to enhance the customer interface by optimizing ergonomics, intuitiveness and usability.

The Six Levels Of Autonomous Driving

“Right now we’re absolutely in a transition state,” Kolodge said. “And part of that transition is the level of automated capability of the vehicle, as well as the level of trust that the consumer has in that automation.”

According to the Society of Automotive Engineers(SAE), there are 6 levels of automation, from 0-5. Zero represents no automation and 5 means the car can completely drive itself. To further delineate: for levels 0-2, the human driver monitors the driving environment, while 3-5 the automated driving system monitors the environment.

For example, Level 1 is a one-direction type of assistance technology such as a lane departure warning or blind spot assistance. Level 2 pairs multiple technologies together as exampled by adaptive cruise control, where it’s keeping your distance in front of you, as well as combining a lane-centering system to keep you spaced safely from the car in front of you. Volvo Pilot Assist and Cadillac Supercruise are considered Level 2 technology.

The Conundrum Around Level 3

Level 3 is where the transition happens of humans passing off monitoring the road to the car. It has control of driving for the majority of the time, but when it encounters a situation it can’t handle, it will let the driver know she has to take over. From studies done, it realistically takes 10 seconds plus or minus for someone to gain awareness when they’re not paying attention. The question is, does that leave enough time for the car to realize it needs an assist from a human and give her time to react appropriately? Perhaps too risky.

“While these levels [of automation] kind of stair-step off of their capability, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s appropriate for us to go through each of those levels in succession,” Kolodge says.  “Someone certainly could be over-trusting of the technology, and then not using it appropriately or have enough time to really gain their situational awareness of what’s going on when the vehicle is asking them to take over control.”

As a result of these risk factors, some manufacturers claim they will skip Level 3, while others like Mercedes just put out its Drive Pilot, which is a Level 3 technology. “I haven’t seen their timeline on that, but it’s going to be interesting to see how that one in particular goes forward,” Kolodge remarks.

When we reach Level 4, that is highly automated driving. It’s full self-driving but only in limited areas in a geo-sensed region or on select routes. We see driverless shuttles being deployed in that type of scenario where its mapped for the vehicle to handle that very specific environment.

The Importance Of Creating Trust

With Level 5, the idea is that the vehicle will be able to competently and safely take over full control and drive even better than we’re capable of. For people to cede control at this level takes a huge amount of trust. In addition to tackling the technology, automakers need to tackle the issue of getting people to buy into the concept of posthumanism. Otherwise, those autonomous cars won’t have any passengers.

Right now we’re in the stages of Level 1 and 2 automation. With Level 2 technologies, we’re starting to see consumers relying more on the displays. They are learning to understand what the vehicle is seeing and recognizing that it’s going to react in an appropriate way. And that’s perhaps the biggest hurdle in getting people into autonomous cars.

Understandability Is Key

“It really centers around that understandability piece. People aren’t confident in understanding what the system is or how it operates,” says Kolodge. “We see a lot of comments around features like forward collision warning and automatic emergency braking, where people just don’t know necessarily if it’s on and working.”

HMI is critical for situating people and allowing them to adjust to this new environment. For instance, head-up displays become very important to be able to put information into a much more usable fashion for the end user. So, displays need to communicate in a manner that explains how the system is functioning and reacting to create a sense of calm for the consumer. You can see this with partially-automated cars.

In the first few days, people pay a lot of attention to what’s going on and making sure the car can handle the situation. If the HMI is designed well, people will cross over from doubting the system to trusting it to make decisions.

Exciting New Possibilities

Once people acclimate to the system in year two and three, they become expert users familiar with and trusting of the car’s capabilities. At that point, automakers will encounter another transitory state. Interfaces can be simplified because people are now fluent in the language; they are no longer at a basic learning level. They now trust the technology.

And here’s where it starts to get really interesting. Without the need for as many or complex displays, automakers can now use that freed up space to create flexibility in the environment for people to do other things, such as reading, sleeping, playing video games, etc. And, they will want to because the car is doing the automated driving.

“Automation can really shape society going forward by opening up mobility for people and giving them back that concept of time, which is such an important resource,” Kolodge says. “I’m really excited about that, for sure.”

I couldn’t agree more.

About the Author

can be reached at meehna@gmail.com
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