Want to relax in your self-driving car? Think again - study

Researchers looked at what happens if a driver is suddenly required to take control of an automated vehicle as in an emergency, and how distractions impacted the driver’s ability to respond.

The interior of a Tesla Model S is shown in autopilot mode in San Francisco, California, U.S., April 7, 2016. (photo credit: REUTERS)
The interior of a Tesla Model S is shown in autopilot mode in San Francisco, California, U.S., April 7, 2016.
(photo credit: REUTERS)

If you think that soon, you will be able to get into a driverless car, play with your smartphone, read, listen to music, or take a nap without touching the steering wheel – forget it.

Early data on activities that will be unsafe to undertake in automated vehicles has been released. Research led by RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, looked at what happens if a driver is suddenly required to take control of an automated vehicle as in an emergency. The series of papers examines how experience and three types of distractions – work, social media, and rest – impacted the driver’s ability to respond.

The study has just been published in the Journal of Safety Research under the title “Is driving experience all that matters? Drivers’ takeover performance in conditionally automated driving.” 

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The lead author in the university’s School of Engineering, Dr. Neng Zhang, said authorities need to begin drafting policies to regulate the responsible use of automated vehicles before Level-3 and -4 automated vehicles appear on Australian roads.

There are five levels of vehicle automation. Already, Level 1 and Level 2 are common through features such as lane keeping, automated parking, and cruise control. More advanced automated vehicles – what we think of when we say “driverless cars” – are currently being tested but are not yet commercially available in Australia. While the National Transport Commission has outlined a regulatory framework for automated vehicles in Australia, driver training, licensing, and obligations are still being considered.

(credit: JPOST STAFF)
(credit: JPOST STAFF)

“In Level-3 and -4 automated driving, the human driver will still need to respond in an emergency, taking control of the vehicle,” declared Zhang. “This data is a starting place for regulation and could lead to data-backed legislation that ensures drivers are given enough time to respond quickly and flawlessly to emergency events.”

Using a Level-3 automated vehicle simulation, the researchers tested participants’ speed and effectiveness in taking over the vehicle in the event of an emergency. “We had them writing business emails (working condition), watching videos (entertaining condition), and taking a break with their eyes closed (resting condition),” said Zhang.

Drivers may not be able to adequately perform such requests if they have limited driving experience.  “These tasks required drivers to invest high, moderate, and low levels of mental workload. We tested their responses after a short interval (five minutes) or long interval (half an hour) of participating in one of these tasks. All of these tasks worsened the takeover and led to a period of poorer driving.”

He and his team found that resting resulted in the worst takeover response, followed by working. Social media was less disruptive, but the longer the participant engaged in an activity, the worse their response was to an emergency.

Biomedical researcher and a co-author of the papers, Prof. Stephen Robinson, warned that emergencies require a high level of cognition. “As soon as something unexpected happens, such as a child running across the road, we need to be able to use our full cognitive abilities to assess the situation and take appropriate action,” said Robinson. “Takeover requests in automated vehicles occur when the onboard computer lacks the capacity to deal with changed or complex driving conditions. Such conditions are potentially dangerous and require the driver to focus quickly and act decisively to keep our roads safe.”

The study also looked at the experience of drivers with a focus on young people. “We found that driving experience and takeover performance were highly correlated, with inexperienced drivers (with fewer than 20,000 kilometers of driving experience) responding more slowly and less effectively. The distance driven since getting a driver’s license is more important than the number of years since the license was issued,” said Zhang. “Our findings highlight the need for vehicle manufacturers and licensing authorities to develop solutions that ensure that conditionally automated vehicles are safe for drivers with varying experience levels.”