Washington | Experts say the development of self-driving cars over the coming decade depends on an unreliable assumption by many automakers: that the humans in them will be ready to step in and take control if the car’s systems fail. Instead, experience with automation in other modes of transportation like aviation and rail suggests that the strategy will lead to more deaths like that of a Florida Tesla driver in May.
Decades of research shows that people have a difficult time keeping their minds on boring tasks like monitoring systems that rarely fail and hardly ever require them to take action. The human brain continually seeks stimulation. If the mind isn’t engaged, it will wander until it finds something more interesting to think about.
The more reliable the system, the more likely it is that attention will wane. Automakers are in the process of adding increasingly automated systems that effectively drive cars in some or most circumstances, but still require the driver as a backup in case the vehicle encounters a situation unanticipated by its engineers.
Tesla’s Autopilot, for example, can steer itself within a lane and speed up or slow down based on surrounding traffic or on the driver’s set speed. It can change lanes with a flip of its signal, automatically apply brakes, or scan for parking spaces and parallel park on command.
Joshua Brown, a 40-year-old tech company owner from Canton, Ohio, who was an enthusiastic fan of the technology, was killed when neither he nor his Tesla Model S sedan’s Autopilot braked for a truck making a left turn on a highway near Gainsville, according to federal investigators and the automaker.
Tesla warns drivers to keep their hands on the wheel even though Autopilot is driving, or the vehicle will automatically slow to a stop. A self-driving system Audi plans to introduce in its 2018 A7, which the company says will be the most advanced on the market, monitors drivers’ head and eye movements, and automatically slows the car if the driver’s attention is diverted.
But Brown’s failure to brake means he either didn’t see the truck in his path or saw it too late to respond an indication he was relying on the automation and his mind was elsewhere, said Missy Cummings, director of Duke University’s Humans and Autonomy Laboratory. The truck driver said he had heard a Harry Potter video playing in the car after the crash.