There’s a saying about life that it’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey. The same can be said of the next decade as the transportation industry navigates its way through the transition toward autonomous technologies.
As it does so, there’s likely to be great upheaval, according to panelists who spoke at Lytx’s annual User Group Conference this year in San Diego. We've previously covered the five levels of automation as a primer for discussing how autonomous vehicle technologies could evolve.
In this article, we look at how a panel of experts at the conference see the journey ahead and what it means for drivers, fleet owners and the industry as a whole.
A popular misconception about autonomous vehicles is that they will eliminate the need for humans. Even at the highest level of automation, Level 5, humans will still be involved in routing decisions, adapting the system to changes in external conditions, monitoring and repairing vehicles, said panelist Bobby Seppelt, Ph.D., a researcher at Touchstone Evaluations and the MIT AgeLab. And that is likely to be years, if not decades, away.
In the meantime, autonomous vehicles will evolve as hybrid systems of humans and machines. In this transition period, from fully manual to fully autonomous, the role of the driver will change significantly. As more functions shift to autonomous systems, drivers assume more of a monitoring role, making sure everything is as it should be and be ready to intervene if it’s not. This post, Partnering With Autonomous Vehicles, goes into greater detail on potential ways the driver’s role could evolve.
The best parallel to this is in aviation. Modern planes are entirely capable of doing all the functions of flying, including take-off and landing. Yet, we still have two pilots at the helm of every commercial passenger flight. The same is likely to be true of commercial transportation vehicles for some time.
Thanks to the pilots who have blazed this trail, we know of several challenges that lie ahead for drivers working with partially autonomous vehicles. They include:
- Staying Vigilant As autonomous technology takes over more driving tasks, the driver will have fewer manual tasks, but more cognitive tasks. Staying focused and fending off boredom will be difficult, but crucial. While there’s currently no solution for this challenge, researchers are looking into ways of using gamification to engage drivers’ attention and keeping them alert. This article, How Gamification Might Help Drivers Optimize Driving and Vehicle Performance, discusses this idea further.
- Keeping Skills Sharp Because drivers will be required to take back control of their vehicles in some situations, particularly during unexpected conditions, their driving skills and reaction times need to stay sharp. But when vehicles can partially operate on their own, drivers will spend fewer hours manually driving, and their proficiency can slip. Seppelt calls this the “Irony of automation.” As automation takes over routine tasks, humans may have reduced awareness of the environment and overly rely on technology to do the work. The consequence is that when things go wrong in edge cases, we have difficulty taking over and intervening in a timely manner, Seppelt said. One solution is to ensure that drivers regularly put in a minimum number of hours manually operating their vehicles.
- Adapting to New Interfaces If you’ve recently shopped for a new car, chances are you encountered a dashboard that looks nothing like the one in the older vehicle you’re looking to replace. Gear shifts have been turned into knobs. Radio controls have been replaced by complex touch-screen menus that go five layers deep. The steering wheel is studded with more buttons than a game controller.
To understand the dilemma of automotive manufacturer in the digital age, let’s say you’re designing controls for a cabin air conditioning system. You have three choices: touch-screen menus, an app-like interface or a dedicated knob. Your first choice, menus, are great for tablets and computers. They let you fine-tune your preferences. But when you’re driving, menus can be dangerous when they require the driver to take their eyes off the road to read, select options and choose settings. With an app-like interface, there are fewer pull-down menus, but interacting with apps on a dashboard can have similar distraction profiles as interacting with apps on a handheld phone while driving. Traditional, dedicated knobs are the most intuitive, but they take up space on a limited piece of real estate that’s being carved up by an increasing number of new features.
A possible solution is to use the windshield as a heads-up display for critical driving information, such as this one from BMW that shows speed and directions. According to BMW, drivers can process information on a heads-up display up to 50 percent faster, without taking their eyes off the road.
In the years ahead, manufacturers and regulators will work to find the right balance between new features and autonomous options, making them intuitively accessible to drivers and ensuring they don’t inadvertently create new safety hazards. “We need to keep drivers’ eyes on the road,” Seppelt said. “There is a lot of information being displayed now that isn’t helpful or is ambiguous. Heads-up displays can help, but research still needs to be done about how to best do that so as not to create clutter.”
Impact on Fleets
Panelists agreed it will be many years before we achieve Level 5 automation and before fully autonomous, driverless vehicles are commercially available. It could be years more for the technology to work its way through adoption cycles to a point where they’re considered common.
As with drivers, the challenge for companies managing large fleets is in the transition period, when interim technologies are introduced. Deciding when to jump in and how will be top of mind for many fleet owners, said Scott Perry, chief technology and procurement officer of Ryder System, Inc.’s Fleet Management Solutions business.
“The past 20 years has seen an astronomical number of technologies deployed,” Perry said. “The next 10 years will be even more disruptive than the past 20 years have been.”
What should fleets be thinking about? Kary Schaefer, general manager of marketing and strategy for Daimler Trucks North America, said there is still work to be done in “operationalizing” autonomous driving technologies. That means deciding when to acquire new technologies, either by purchasing new vehicles or retrofitting existing vehicles. It also means having a plan in place to integrate autonomous technologies with safety and compliance systems currently in place.
Fleets should also be thinking about how they will train drivers to monitor and operate autonomous vehicles as their roles shift. Schaefer urged fleet operators to “think less about driverless vehicles” and instead, “think about getting from A to B as safely and reliably as possible.”
Impact on Industry
Two industry-level issues came up during the Autonomous Vehicle panel—insurance premiums and government regulations.
For self-insured fleets, the question of premiums isn’t as relevant. But for everyone else, there just isn’t enough actuarial driving data to derive standard rates for higher-level autonomous vehicles. “There’s a lot of work to be done in this space,” Schaefer said. “It’s complicated.”
As for regulations, panelists expressed optimism that the federal agencies, in particular the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, are supportive of autonomous vehicle technologies, largely because they are seen as a potential way to reduce traffic fatalities.
Bottom line: if regarded as a safety enhancer that saves lives, autonomous vehicles could get a fast-track through regulatory processes, but even then, getting all parties aligned on regulations is easier said than done. It could also result in lower insurance premiums if driving data backs up the safety argument.
In summary, panelists agree that autonomous technologies are an inevitable part of the industry near future, but that the course from the assistive functions of Level 1 automation to the fully driverless capabilities of Level 5 will likely result in a bumpy ride.