COMMENT: Balancing enjoyment and trust essential for all levels of automation

AV developers should remember that humans will always be at the heart of vehicle design, writes Betti Hunter

Increasing developments in autonomous vehicle (AV) technology are guiding the automotive industry into uncharted territory. As vehicles become more able to take on complex driving tasks, in the future human drivers may be able—or compelled—to literally take a back seat. This new paradigm has the potential to completely change the in-car experience at all levels of automation, from the design of the human-machine interface (HMIs) to the interior layout of the vehicle itself.

Now more than ever, consumers are demanding sophisticated features that offer convenience, comfort and entertainment within their conventionally-driven vehicles. In particular, enhanced multi-modal devices that offer drivers and passengers the information and entertainment they need and desire will be more a complement to autonomous technology than an enabler. Preparing vehicles for automation is not an end in itself.

Enhanced multi-modal devices that offer drivers and passengers the information and entertainment they need and desire will be more a complement to autonomous technology than an enabler

But a balance will need to be struck as personal cars are progressively equipped with additional driver assist features on the road to the Level 3 automation and beyond. Level 3 already divides the automotive industry because drivers will be able to focus on other tasks but are also required to be alert at all times, should they need to take back vehicle control. In a cabin with so many alluring distractions, critics ask, how realistic will this be? As humans continue to play a crucial role in the driver’s seat, the emphasis will be on developing easy-to-navigate, voice-activated HMIs that keep distraction to a minimum.

In shared vehicles, there is more potential for experimentation in the near future. Given that this arena is where higher levels of automation will likely be initially rolled out, developing a welcoming and stimulating environment for passengers is already a chief concern. Shared AV and shuttle developers are considering the possibility of creating adaptable spaces to work, sleep, consume media and more. This, the logic goes, will make shared AVs more appealing for travellers—although the problem that motion sickness could pose is yet to be conclusively solved. For now, the interior of shared AVs is largely similar to current bus and minibus design. Additional screens and media options will keep passengers entertained and, in the future, could help to communicate real-time on-road situations to reassure wary riders.

Assuaging doubts and fears as to AV capabilities will be of paramount importance when it comes to convincing riders to step inside and put their lives in a machine’s ‘hands’. Though AV developers believe that self-driving vehicles will increase safety on the roads, the public will take some convincing. French AV shuttle manufacturer Navya believes that a human presence will be necessary in shared self-driving vehicles for some time to come, if only to explain how the vehicle works and help riders to feel safer as they glide through streets with no-one at the helm. Riders will likely also be soothed by a human attendee who can take control in an emergency, and police the behaviour of the group of strangers on board. In time, human attendees could be replaced by a combination of an interface and cameras that link back to a control room. This, however, is some way off.

Assuaging doubts and fears as to AV capabilities will be of paramount importance when it comes to convincing riders to step inside and put their lives in a machine’s ‘hands’.

Full automation across the board is a distant, if not unrealistic dream. More likely is the potential that vehicles of differing levels of automation will sit alongside each other on the roads, necessitating a wide range of solutions depending on the model and use case. But no matter what technological advances are made, the automotive industry must remember that humans will always be the core consideration when envisaging the vehicles of the future.

Further insight into HMI and in-cab AV evolution from automakers, suppliers, developers and analysts is now available in Automotive World‘s latest special report, ‘Human factors in autonomous vehicle development‘.

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