Last month I went on a test drive for a new car. I bought all my previous cars based on friends’ recommendations, and I’ve never test-driven a potential purchase before. This time, because I was undecided between two makes, and without clear-cut recommendations from anyone, I decided to take the cars for a spin.
So I scheduled a Friday morning ride in the more expensive of the cars I had my sights on. The morning of the drive, I took pains to look extra elegant, as befits the possible owner of a fancy new automobile. I blew-dry my hair. I put on a red floral dress, white sandals, and sunglasses. Then I was ready to hit the road.
At the dealership I was met by a young man — white shirt rolled up at the sleeves, black, waiter-like trousers and shoes, earring, a glimpse of a tattoo on an arm. He smiled at me. “Ready?” he asked. “Sure, let’s go,” I answered.
I got into the dark gray vehicle and he showed me how to start it with the push of a button. Lots of different colored lights lit up on the dashboard to greet me and off we went down the streets of south Tel Aviv, smoothly transitioning onto the Ayalon highway.
Being a somewhat easily stressed person, and since I was driving a car I wasn’t familiar with, I was initially extra careful and a bit slow. But gradually my confidence grew, and soon we were sailing down the highway, music blasting on the radio. And I was having fun. Until he said: “Look.” He pressed a button and then added: “Okay. Cruise control is on. Leave the accelerator. Let go.”
“What?” I croaked, never having used cruise control before.
“Leave it,” he repeated. “Cruise control is on.”
“Oh, cool,” I said, feeling anything but.
I took my foot off the gas. Hesitantly. But as I did, blood rushed to my ears and my heart started pounding. I hit the brakes, retaking full control, my knuckles showing white on the wheel.
“So sorry,” I apologized, slightly aghast at my behavior. “I just couldn’t let go.”
The young man looked deeply unimpressed. “I just wanted to show you how it worked,” he said.
“I know,” I mumbled. “I’m sorry. I just couldn’t do it. How do I know it won’t hit a car that suddenly cuts into my lane?”
Truthfully, in my frazzled state, I can’t remember what he answered. I think he said something like if a car had cut into my lane I would have simply touched the brake, disabling the cruise control. But how was I to know that? I asked myself.
We drove back to the dealership quietly, the music on the radio sounding a bit strident now. There, I thanked him for his time and told him I’d let him know my decision. He sweetly shook my hand and wished me good luck.
Then I left, feeling somewhat foolish, sunglasses slightly askew, imagining he was probably already having a good laugh with his friends about the control freak he just had a ride with.
That incident got me thinking. If I couldn’t even partially relinquish my driving authority to cruise control, how will I be able to cede full control to a self-driving car — the car of the future?
I have often dreamed of how ideal it would be, in theory, to have a driverless car whizz me around the city while I sit peacefully in the back, checking my email or reading up on an interviewee I’m on my way to meet or writing up an urgent story.
But now, I asked myself: Would I actually feel comfortable doing that, with an empty driver seat in front of me?
I guess it’s a matter of personality. Maybe I am a bit of a control freak. Also, I’m possibly a bit old-fashioned — I started off driving a stick shift and I still miss, at times, the growl of the changing gears.
Then, I guess, age is also a factor. I asked my 21-year old son what he thought of my cruise-control experience and how badly I’d probably cope with a self-driving car. He noted wisely: You are more than happy to be driven around by taxi. That’s true, I mused. But that’s when someone else is in control, sitting behind the steering wheel. And to that my son answered: Who says autonomous cars will have steering wheels? Maybe if you don’t have one, you won’t miss it.
So I mulled some more.
It’s not that I am a technophobe — I’m anything but. I’m a tech reporter by trade, and I am personally happy to adopt the comforts of technology. In the car, I routinely cede navigation to the Waze system, even if at the very beginning I was suspicious of whether it would actually get me to my destination.
I decided to find out what researchers in the field think. Tech giants and car makers globally are racing to get the first fully autonomous cars onto the roads, possibly even by 2019. But how easy will it be for us drivers and users to cede control? How quickly will we be able to adapt, to just sit back and enjoy the ride?
It’s all about trust
It appears I’m not the only slightly hysterical person around. Ceding control may indeed not be that easy for many, and researchers are trying to work around our concerns.
Trust, said Jack Weast, principal engineer & chief architect of autonomous driving solutions at Intel Corp., is “critically important for consumers.” Intel has positioned itself at the forefront of autonomous driving technologies, having acquired Israel’s Mobileye last year.
“You are not going to want to get into a car or put your loved ones inside the car if you don’t trust it,” Weast said firmly in a phone interview. And if the cars are not trustworthy, regulators are not going to authorize the widescale deployment of autonomous vehicles. “They need to trust that the autonomous vehicle is going to drive safely.”
Trust is defined in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary online as the “assured reliance on the character, ability, strength, or truth of someone or something.”
“Those aren’t words you would typically apply to a machine,” said Weast. “So that is part of the challenge. How do you create a human-like relationship in terms of trust with a machine?”
To research the subject, Intel conducted a study — possibly the first ever in autonomous-vehicle human-machine interface testing — of men and women “drivees” of varied ages and backgrounds by taking them on rides in self-driving cars in various driving conditions and asking them about their concerns and impressions. The passengers sat in the back, while the surveyor sat in front, together with an emergency driver, who sat behind the wheel but didn’t drive the car. The aim was to find out what kind of technologies need to be in place to make people trust an autonomous vehicle.
The study found that the passengers, like me, were excited about the perks that would come with self-driving cars. They loved that they could theoretically sit quietly and work, check their smartphones, play or just listen to music. They loved the idea that kids could get around by car without having to be dependent on their soccer moms. Some perceived autonomous vehicles to be safer, because human judgment is often poor and people are unpredictable and make bad choices. Riding in self-driving cars would eliminate the stress of driving and with all the cameras these cars are equipped with, it would mean there are more eyes on the road, they felt.
But there were also tensions that arose, mainly deriving from the human-machine interaction. Respondents were worried that the car would not be able to make subjective and intuitive decisions, in a split second, as a human would. Are the cars truly aware of their surroundings, and able to make decisions; can cars discern traffic nuances and react in real time, as needed?
Also, without a person in charge of the car and without monitoring, respondents were concerned that perhaps people would tend to be more destructive and unlawful. They also wondered how a disabled person or an older citizen would fare in a self-driving vehicle. Would they be able to easily get in and out, without assistance?
The passengers were also very keen on being told what was happening in the car. “They wanted to be really aware of what was going on,” said Weast. “We were very communicative in terms of what the vehicle is doing and we constantly showed them alerts and other communications and information about what the car is doing and why. And then they very quickly got comfortable with it and they said ok, stop bothering me. Don’t keep telling me what you are doing.
“And this was all in the course of like a five-minute ride. It is amazing how fast people minds worked through and started processing this.”
Ghost-like steering wheels and new models of control
One thing that really bothered the passengers, Weast noted, was that during the experiments, as the passengers sat in the back seat and the safety driver sat in front of the steering wheel, his hands were not touching the wheel.
“They saw this ghost-like steering wheel spinning around as the car was driving, ” he said. And “that mental image of an empty driver seat caused people some anxiety.”
The respondents felt helpless, not having access to vital controls. The more the vehicle looked like a traditional, “legacy” car, the greater the anxiety.
“There was a notion of a sort of a loss of control that made them very uncomfortable,” Weast said.
So, Intel provided them with a phone and some tablets in the back seat, so that they could control aspects of the car and stop it any time they wanted to, he said.
“We gave them a new kind of control,” he said. “It was that new form of control that helped them relax their anxieties.” This suggests, he said, “that, as an industry, we need to think more carefully about what is the new control paradigm.”
Rather than humans not having any control whatsoever, he said, developers of self-driving cars need to figure out “what kind of control paradigms” should be created that would make passengers more comfortable “and make them feel like they are still in control in some way.”
The research also showed that, as my son had suggested might be the case, removing the traditional essentials — like the steering wheel — from the interior of the cars reduced passengers’ anxiety and unease.
For the exterior of the car, however, the opposite was true, explained Weast. Consumers like it better if it looks like a “normal car,” he said. And other drivers, pedestrians and bicycles will relate to it like a regular, human-driven car, “which is what you want,” he said.
“If it looks like a strange vehicle that you have never seen before, you might have the opposite problem, that people do strange things to it,” just because they want to “pick on” or challenge the autonomous car, to test its abilities, he said.
Crossing a psychological barrier
“There is a lot of research regarding acceptance and trust of technologies and self-driving cars,” said Avinoam Borowsky, a senior lecturer at the industrial engineering and management department at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. The research is “around what traits autonomous vehicles need to have to allow users to feel comfortable and safe in them.”
The university conducts research with a self-driving car simulator and passengers to study what features help build trust and increase user comfort.
“Transferring control completely to cars won’t be so simple,” he said. “There is a psychological barrier that has to be crossed, and I don’t know if that will happen or not.”
Age, he said, is also a factor at play. “It could be that the next generation of young people won’t know what driving a car means, and so they won’t have any problem driving in a self- driving car because they don’t know any other scenario.”
Borowsky brought up the issue of airplanes, which technologically are able to fly autonomously, but still have pilots on board and at the helm.
“We are not prepared to cede control,” he said. “We still have pilots on the planes. It is a matter of trust. People still prefer to have a human in charge.”
Planes are an interesting point, said Intel’s Weast. “They kind of go both ways. Because when we get on a plane we are not anxious at all that for 95% of the flight there are computer systems that are flying the plane.”
This is probably because “we personally don’t fly, we are not pilots,” he said. “Cars are something we have all been drivers [of] and we have been drivers for a long time,” so the barrier is greater.
In planes, however, passengers feel a greater sense of trust that the computerized systems actually help the pilot keep the flight safer, Weast said.
“Airplanes are technologically able to stay in the air and fly, but humans are still involved in the whole loop of flying, from the air traffic control tower to planning the route and the pilots,” said Itamar Houdine, an airline pilot for El Al, Israel’s national airline said by phone. The plane flies autonomously, “but I am still in command.”
That is perhaps a likely scenario for autonomous vehicles.
“The largest volume of automated vehicles are going to be those where there is going to be a human driver,” a so-called Level 3 automation, as compared to the Level 5 fully autonomous cars, Intel’s Weast said.
In Level 3 cars there will still be a human driver, “but for long periods of time you are going to be able to sit back and relax and just be ready to take back over,” he said.
“If either the human or computer driver were to do something that would put the car into a dangerous situation, that would get it into an accident, our safety seal will stop that action and prevent the car from getting into that unsafe state,” he said.
Even as research into self-driving cars progresses, the main and perhaps the biggest challenge ahead is to get these cars behave like normal, human-driven cars, Weast said.
If an autonomous cars obeys all the rules, but is not assertive like a human driver would be, it would simply get stuck in traffic.
“If we program the vehicles with only a strict interpretation of the rules, you’ll have a robotic car that can’t merge, and if anything, it confuses other road users, because it is not behaving normally,” Weast said.
Intel is continuously talking with industry players, regulators and consumer groups, with the aim of creating a joint safety standard for the autonomous vehicles, he said.
“All of the industry should come together and have a common definition of safety assurance,” Weast said. “Let’s talk about it in the industry, let’s talk about it with regulators and consumers — because it is a societal kind of question, to make sure we are all on the same page.” The idea is to understand how these vehicles operate, “so we can extend that trust relationship to the car.”
Personally, for the time being, I’m happy to be keeping my hands on the wheel, and to be the only one controlling my car. But one day, I might just be persuaded to sit back and let the computers do the work. Maybe.
Oh, and by the way, I didn’t buy the car I test drove that day. The other one was cheaper, and I went with that. Does it have cruise control? Probably. I didn’t ask and I haven’t checked.