We recently sat down with Bobbie Seppelt, Ph.D., an expert human factors research scientist and consultant in the design of automotive systems and products for Detroit-based Touchstone Evaluations. An industrial engineer by education, Dr. Seppelt is a leading consultant to the automotive industry on the role of the human driver/operator of autonomous vehicles (AVs), with an emphasis on commercial transportation. Dr. Seppelt provides leadership and guidance in emerging issues related to vehicle automation, and integration of advanced technology with a focus on driver-vehicle interface design.
Commercial vehicle manufacturers have already taken steps toward AVs, says Dr. Seppelt, but in general, truck automation on highways and in cities will likely be introduced after consumer vehicles. The role of the commercial driver, however, has already begun to evolve.
“As more automation is introduced into the commercial vehicle, the driver’s role is shifting to include engaging, monitoring and managing automated systems based on their capabilities to respond and adapt to unexpected events and conditions,” she said. This, of course, is reliant on the extent to which these systems can operate in environments with some degree of unpredictability due to weather, traffic, pedestrians or other environmental influences.
“The more capable automated systems become, the more the driver will shift into a passenger role. However, even in this role, the human will still need to be aware of how the vehicle is performing relative to its capabilities and limitations to be prepared to potentially step in and resume manual control if requested, or if the system reaches a state where it is unable to complete trip goals,” said Dr. Seppelt.
Defining the New Role of the Commercial Driver
She believes that the definition of the driver will change as vehicles evolve to incorporate more automation.
“Depending on how automated systems are designed for use in commercial vehicles, the driver will become either a ‘partner’ or a ‘supervisor’, or will transition between types of roles during periods of automated control,” says Dr. Seppelt.
When the driver is acting to cooperate with the automation or to supervise its behavior, Dr. Seppelt says certain issues become important, including:
- Can the driver remain successfully attentive to driving – even though the vehicle is lightening the driver’s load – and possibly allowing them to momentarily shift attention to non-driving tasks?
- What is it that the driver will choose to do (or attend to) when the vehicle is autonomously controlling driving?
- Can the driver maintain enough awareness of the driving situation to be able to successfully resume control in urgent conditions or when the vehicle transitions control back to them?
With these scenarios, there are new and important tasks the driver will be called upon to perform:
- Supervise the performance and behavior of the automation
- Understand how automation is performing relative to its capabilities and limits
- Select and engage automated systems in situations in which it will improve efficiency and performance over manual control, and disengage it when the reverse occurs
- Communicate navigation and vehicle control performance goals to the automated system(s) to, in collaboration, achieve required/optimal/safe trip outcomes.
Completing these tasks will require new, evolving skills, significantly changing how drivers will be selected and trained, and how their performance will be evaluated. Critical new skills will include knowing how automated technologies function and interact with one another and the driver (where we add value!), the situations and dynamics under which individual technologies are designed to operate in and at what efficiencies.
More practically, Dr. Seppelt says that to maintain safety, drivers will need to successfully manage attention to multiple tasks while remaining aware of how his or her current state and behavior are affecting the overall system performance.
At Lytx, our expertise in improving fleet performance is fueled by a knowledge database built on over 50 billion driving miles—one of the largest in the world. As fleets begin purchasing vehicles with increasing levels of automation, we can help those fleets ensure their drivers are engaged, safe, and prepared to take control in complex and risky road conditions.