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The Promise and Pitfalls of Autonomous Cars

By Wesley Fenlon

Google's self-driving cars will eventually change the world, but until that happens, individual autonomous systems may raise new challenges for drivers.

As an idea, self-driving cars perform a rare balancing act, like a stunt car staying up on two wheels; they immediately conjure up slick science fiction like I, Robot and Minority Report, which we associate with cool, but they also make us think of safety, as fleets of autonomous cars would cut down on accidents caused by driver error. Google proudly proclaims that its self-driving cars have traveled more than 300,000 miles without incident. It's incredible technology, but self-driving cars will still need years and probably decades of fine-tuning, and much more sophisticated artificial intelligence, to truly replace human drivers' ability to react to the unexpected.

While we're eagerly awaiting self-driving cars, automakers are busy working smaller automation systems into their newest cars. And as a detailed article on Technology Review points out, this transitionary period between relatively little automation and full automation will especially dangerous and challenging.

Photo credit: Google

Technology Review's Will Knight writes: How to make sure autonomy meshes with human behavior is a topic that Don Norman, a cognitive scientist and product design consultant, explores in depth in his 2007 book The Design of Future Things. Norman foresees many potential problems with more autonomous cars; in fact, he points out, some have already cropped up. He describes how he worked with automakers whose adaptive cruise control systems would automatically speed a car up as a driver entered an off-ramp, because the ramp was free of traffic; or they would suddenly slow a car down if the driver pulled in close behind another car while changing lanes, thereby forcing the car behind to brake suddenly as well. 'Fully automatic control will be safer,' he writes. 'The difficulty lies in the transition toward full automation, when only some things will be automated.'

Knight touches on several examples of autonomous controls in cars today. The Ford Fusion, for example, uses adaptive cruise control to keep pace with the car in front of it, so long as that car doesn't exceed a set speed, and it uses a Lane-Keeping System to show the driver where the car is situated in the lane. If the car drifts too far towards the edge of its lane, the steering wheel will move of its own volition, gently nudging the car back towards the center.

These are examples of good features--features that make driving easier and safer--but getting them just right is obviously challenging, as Don Norman mentioned above. And autonomous systems can lead to another problem: Inattentive drivers. Studies have shown that too many distractions are dangerous when driving (a fact which surprises no one), but too few things to pay attention to will also leave drivers unprepared to respond quickly.

Too few things to pay attention to will also leave drivers unprepared to respond quickly.

Knight references a 2011 Federal Aviation Administration report that "suggested that overreliance on automation may have contributed to several recent crashes involving pilot error." Could the same thing happen to drivers? Probably. At the very least, autonomous systems will have to be better at taking human capabilities and shortcomings into account. Here's Knight describing the experience of using an automated parallel parking system:

"The system identifies a suitable spot and then executes a near-perfect reversing maneuver while the driver operates the brake. It was unnerving, at first, to see the steering wheel spin violently as the car backed into an empty spot, but I also marveled at how flawlessly it worked.

This experience also hinted at the biggest challenge for increased vehicle automation: how to merge human and machine abilities effectively.

Bryan Reimer, a research scientist at MIT’s Age Lab, who uses the Lincoln to study driver behavior, was sitting in the passenger seat during my test drive as I searched for a parking spot. He warned me not to accept the first few that the car offered to squeeze into, not because he doubted the technology but because he doubted my ability to undo what it did. 'You’ll just never get out of there,' he said, pointing out that the Lincoln can park itself with just a few inches to spare on either end."

Check out Technology Review's full article for more on what Google's cars can do now, and how modern car systems are inching towards full autonomy.