Semi-autonomous cars in trouble?

There’s the recent piece of news making rounds Tesla Model S using Autopilot being involved in fatal crash in Florida. (See e.g. http://www.theverge.com/2016/6/30/12072408/tesla-autopilot-car-crash-death-autonomous-model-s ) There are multiple reactions, ranging from “autopilot killed the driver” to “fully autonomous cars are the answer”. Our VW Touran is also equipped with multiple “driver assist” systems, and my experience from using them is sort of mixed. There are clearly beneficial functions, like the adaptive cruise control (ACC) that appears pretty reliable in helping maintaining safe distance to other vehicles, reducing potential for accidents, and also reducing driver stress while being constantly forced to slow down or speed up in congested motorways.

On the other hand, VW Lane Assist system is being marketed as a “friendly co-driver” that can sense if car is “drifting out of your driving lane”, when it “gently counter-steers the car back on line”. In practice, using Lane Assist often feels like you are competing from control of the car with the system, as the exact driving line the system uses is not always the one I would choose as a driver. The system should learn about the preferences of the driver, but the fundamental issue with semi-autonomous, assisted cars remains: who is exactly in charge?

The semi-autonomous system feels like it knows best, in most situations. But in several situations it does not react, or cannot detect the obvious danger. The car companies emphasise that the driver is always responsible of the control of the vehicle, but as assistive systems are developing stronger, they are sending mixed signals. There is always the temptation to take feet off the pedals, or hands off the steering wheel. Yet, the driver should keep focused and alert, in order to react at the right moment when the robotic assistant fails or comes to the limits of its abilities. For a driver, this also means that one should not only know the limits of one’s own abilities, but learn to know the limits of the assistive systems, and learn new driving skills, that are half based on old-fashioned direct control of the car, and half on division of tasks to the artificial intelligence systems. And that is a new kind of skill set.

Author: frans

Professor of Information Studies and Interactive Media, esp. Digital Culture and Game Studies in the University of Tampere, Finland.