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Autonomous Vehicles, New Mobility & the Built Environment Smart Driving Car Summit

Where Are We on the Road to Safe Driving?

Ken in a pretend car on Route 66.
The Open Road

The road to safe-driving is one with a destination that is always just out of reach. That is, paraphrasing Princeton Professor Dr. Alain Kornhauser, 100% risk-free transportation is unachievable. With that in mind, Kornhauser did an excellent job of organizing a panel of experts from Europe and America to discuss existing and future solutions to make human-driven vehicles safer. 

Moderated by Consumer Reports’ Head of Connected and Automated Vehicles, Kelly Funkhouser, the panel consisted of human factors experts representatives from European and U.S. safety rating institutes.  The most important message from these esteemed experts, that regardless of the safety features of any new car, it is imperative that the driver remain fully engaged in the driving experience. 

Safety Improvements, But an Engaged Driver Is Still Necessary #

Crash avoidance features are helping drivers avoid crashing, according to IIHS data.
Crash avoidance features are helping drivers avoid crashing, according to IIHS data.

IIHS’s EVP & Chief Research Officer, David Zuby set the stage by providing an overview and effectiveness of the types of safety systems that are currently available. The technology fits into two categories; warning systems that alert a driver (e.g. Forward Collision Warning System), and systems that take action based on what the car senses (e.g. Automatic Emergency Braking). 

As an example of effectiveness, IIHS data indicates Forward Collision Warning (FCW) reduces front-to-rear crashes by 27%.  With automated braking, the number of front-to-rear crashes declines by 50%, compared to no system at all.

The improvement from adding technologies is not consistent, as some of the features might be viewed by the driver as the Chicken Little of driving. For instance, Zuby points out that Lane Departure alerts are not always for crash imminent events, so drivers, annoyed with false alarms, turn off the feature.

According to Richard Schram, Euro NCAP’s Technical Director, Richard Schram, the vehicle safety landscape in Europe is similar to what Zuby described for the U.S. market. Schram indicates that safety features are evolving into a new category of comfort and convenience. Many of those features, originally on higher-end vehicles, are moving to lower-cost cars. 

Still, there aren’t enough sensors on today’s vehicles and the lack of sensor fusion makes it impossible to automate the driver function, according to Schram. He is adamant that manufacturers accurately sell and market a vehicle’s capability. The 2020 German court order that prevents Tesla from using “Autopilot” is an example that words matter when describing vehicle automation technology.

Human-Machine Interface Is Critical #

As long as there is a steering wheel for the human to be behind, the human-machine interface is going to be critical. That interface starts with the human understanding of how to use the system. University of Massachusetts Amherst, Professor Anuj Pradhan presented a flow chart showing the various states of adaptive cruise control and its associated complexity. With each vehicle having its own unique operation and with definitions varying between manufacturers, training drivers on how to use the technology is a huge challenge.

As automation increases, the other battle is driver complacency. Pradhan points out that human beings are terrible at being alert if they are not engaged. Resumption costs [the time required to resume a task after it has been interupted] are the challenge.

The view of what the Panasonic Heads Up Display provides - Image courtesy of Panasonic
The view of what the Panasonic Heads Up Display provides – Image courtesy of Panasonic

Part of the solution might include a driver monitoring system to make sure drivers are doing what they are supposed to do or, as Dr. Kornhauser would say, they aren’t misbehaving. It goes beyond misbehavior, as, according to Zuby, 40% of lane departure crashes are because of incapacitated operators.¹ A driver monitoring system which combines active safety features could safely park a vehicle with an incapacitated driver and alert authorities to render help, reducing these type of crashes.

Funkhouser is encouraged by Panasonic’s announcement about its augmented reality, heads-up windshield display, and how it might improve the driver’s engagement. This type of feature promises to help focus the driver’s attention on harder-to-see objects, such as bicycles or pedestrians. Improving pedestrian safety will be increasingly important, as the number of pedestrian fatalities is on an upward trend with an estimated 6,590 in 2019

Regulations Set the Bar for Imperfection #

Despite the limitations, Zuby points out that the technology is going in the right direction. He believes safety should be the priority for applying technology to the driving experience. Zuby sees limitations to voluntary standards in that the bar is often set to low. For instance, with the voluntary Automatic Emergency Braking (AEB) agreement, not all the systems are sophisticated as they could be (e.g. pedestrian detection). 

A bumper sticker showing the lighter side of Silicon Valley.
Only in Silicon Valley – A Humorous Bumper Sticker About the Autonomous Car.

Schram describes the Euro NCAP role as sort of a regulatory sandbox that works in concert with automakers and regulatory agencies. He describes a process that is much more nimble than what a traditional regulator could do. For instance, new features, such as AEB, Lane Keeping, and Automatic Cruise Control were introduced without regulation. The regulations follow. His advice was not to regulate too much but to use competition to continue to improve safety.

There was concurrence that the safest car is a new car. Therein lies a huge challenge, as at current rates, it will take decades for the safety features of today’s cars to promulgate throughout the fleet. As pointed out by the Dispatcher’s Michael Sena in the January 7th SmartDrivingCar Summit panel, used cars outsell new cars by almost 2.5 times (40.8 versus 17M U.S. sales in 2019). 

Stay Engaged Regardless of How Much Driver-Assist Tech You Have #

Funkhouser wrapped up the panel by emphasizing that this is an exciting time. The technology is in its infancy and there is still is much to learn;

  • Understanding how to help people use driver-assist and automated technologies
  • Improving performance
  • How best to continue to improve safety standards, whether through voluntary or regulatory means

The most important message from the distinguished speakers on this panel is that drivers need to remain engaged and attentive to the roadway, regardless of which new car they may have the good fortune to drive.

[Note: This author was a producer for this particular session of the Smart Driving Car Summit. Sessions take place on Zoom on Thursdays at 12 PM EST through April. Register for future sessions at https://princeton.irisregistration.com/Register?code=SmartDriving2020]


¹ It is important to note that sometimes the driver is unable to drive due to medical conditions and sometimes it is due to misbehavior.

Author Ken Pyle, Managing Editor

By Ken Pyle, Managing Editor

Ken Pyle is co-founder of Viodi, LLC and Managing Editor of the Viodi View, a publication focused on independent telcos’ efforts to offer video to their customers. He has edited and produced numerous multimedia projects for NTCA, US Telecom and Viodi. Pyle is the producer of Viodi’s Local Content Workshop, the Video Production Crash Course at NAB, as well as ViodiTV. He has been intimately involved in Viodi’s consulting projects and has created processes for clients to use for their PPV and VOD operations, as well authored reports on the independent telco market.

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