OEMs are developing interior driver assistance systems that won't replace human motorists - instead these systems will augment human drivers. Full vehicle autonomy is just too far off.
“Anytime, anyplace, anywhere!” Anyone over the age of 45 will recognize the jingle from the Martini advert, c.1980. For everyone else – or those feeling nostalgic for a bygone age – there’s YouTube.
Anytime, anyplace, anywhere could easily have been the tag line for the AV tech industry, which for the last couple of years has been wildly optimistic with its claims of autonomous driving at Level 4 and Level 5 in mass-market vehicles by 2020.
The death of Elaine Herzberg in Tempe, Arizona – resulting from a collision with an experimental self-driving Uber – and the growing list of fatal accidents related to misuse of Tesla’s Autopilot have one fact in common: They prove that replacing human drivers with machine drivers in real-world conditions is extraordinarily difficult.
As AV magical thinking gets paved over with harsh reality, OEMs have started to appreciate the commercial and legal risks associated with autonomous and automated driving. We can see this with the emergence of variants of the SAE driving levels, such as “Level 2+”, “Level 3-”, or my current favorite of “Level 2.9”.
Ok, we get it – OEMs and Tier One's don’t want to assume the legal liability for conditional automation at Level 3. Thus, as the capability of automated driving tech increases – but remains brittle, à la Autopilot – so ingenious names have had to be created which confirm the human is still responsible at all times.
While undoubtedly offering many safety benefits, it is clear that AI and deep learning can’t eliminate traffic fatalities any more than science can eradicate the common cold. “Vision Zero” makes a great headline and the tech industry certainly has a role to play, but common sense tells us that zero fatalities (forever?) is an unrealistic proposition in real-world conditions – as Boeing’s troubles with the MCAS software in its 737 Max demonstrate.
Interior assistance coming
The next step towards reducing traffic fatalities isn’t so much about AI as IA – interior assistance. OEMs are heading towards developing interior driver assistance systems which will augment – to make something greater by adding to it – rather than replace the human driver.
I call this concept “augmented driving” and the objective is to use technology to make human drivers into safer drivers by mixing the best aspects of humans (improvisation, perception and situational awareness) with the best aspects of machine intelligence (fast reaction times, zero fatigue and an infinite attention span).
I first wrote about augmented driving in October 2017, so a quick hat tip to @AlexRoy144, who beat me to the idea of technology augmenting human drivers by a couple of months. Augmented driving is the basis of Toyota’s “Guardian” system – announced at CES earlier this year – while Veoneer refers to “Collaborative Driving”.
As the undisputed champion of road safety, Volvo’s plans in this area are well developed. In a recent interview, Armin Kesedzic of Volvo's active safety department stated "We're using multiple sensors, looking at every bit of information we can get from the car. How the steering wheel is being handled, how the pedals are being used.”
I see augmented driving as the coming together of four components, so let’s have a look at these in more detail.
Engaged Driver: Hands on the wheel, eyes on the road, mind on driving. This implies a scenario where some OEMs (not Tesla, obviously) could depart from the “hands-off/eyes-off/mind-off” journey and focus instead on permanent driver engagement.
Interior Driver Assistance: Real-time driver attention, cognitive, facial expression and fatigue monitoring, using sensors across multiple domains including position, pressure, time-of-flight, torque, touch and vision. Sensors will be fully integrated into the vehicle, such that the driver is not aware of their presence.
Exterior Driver Assistance: Continued evolution of ADAS for speed assist and lane support. These systems correct the basic longitudinal and lateral control errors of fatigued and distracted drivers and will vary in sensitivity and responsiveness according to real-time changes in the driver’s observed attention state and engagement level.
Intervention: Limit acceleration or speed. In extremis, stop the vehicle or alert the emergency services if the driver is unresponsive. The goal is to intervene only if absolutely necessary and never to interfere – human factors research will play a critical role in the development of appropriate intervention strategies.
The latest Euro NCAP Assessment Protocol for Safety Assist – which was published in February and starts to take effect from January 2020 – mostly describes this type of integrated functionality. Thus, you can expect to see more OEMs announcing systems similar to Volvo’s in the next couple of years.
After almost forty years, the Martini advert feels dated. Today, no serious ad agency would portray the corporate world as one where all senior managers are men, admins are disapproving mature ladies and that drinks are served by young women in short skirts wearing roller skates. Disagree? Then #getwoke
According to the WHO, more than 1.35 million people died on the world’s roads and highways in 2018 – every incident a personal tragedy and not one getting more media attention than the death of Elaine Herzberg. In the short term we should all demand nothing less than for OEMs – and automotive advisory and regulatory bodies around the world – to come together and take dramatic action to substantially reduce this unacceptable death toll.
In another two or three decades, driving while intoxicated, distracted or fatigued is certain to be far less socially acceptable than today. Attitudes change over time – just as societal views around work and gender roles have evolved significantly since the 1980s world of Martini.
Similarly, hostile perceptions of “nanny tech,” “the spy in the car” and “privacy invasions” – all deriving from the proposed use of cameras and accident data recorders in privately-owned vehicles – will also have to change drastically. Humans simply cannot expect to operate vehicles weighing 4,000 lbs or more on public roads and highways and to forever be free of some degree of observation.
In Europe, from May 2022 all new vehicle models will be required to have a driver-facing camera and accident data recorder installed in order to gain type approval (homologation) – and other regions look certain to follow Europe’s lead in the short term, possibly even starting with the U.S.
For human drivers that can’t bring themselves to concentrate on driving – or who refuse to be monitored in any way whatsoever – the great news is you don’t have to drive at all. Just give up your license and use Lyft, Uber or Waymo instead.
For everyone else, get ready for augmented driving: More capable than ADAS and more realizable than full autonomy. Just like Martini, it's “The right one!”
— Colin Barnden is principal analyst at Semicast Research