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Could autonomous vehicles lead to the mobile office?

Rachel Boagey investigates whether autonomous vehicles could become the home of a new mobile office

For years, the automotive industry has struggled to keep up with consumer demand for technologies that are readily available in smartphones and other handheld gadgets. But now, as connectivity becomes more accessible and business models change, it seems that the humble car is quickly becoming a must-have mobile office.

So, is the prospect of a car as a mobile workplace realistic – or even possible?

As automation develops and in-car systems  take greater responsibility for the safe control of vehicles, there will inevitably be increasing opportunities for drivers to engage in other activities, such as using a tablet computer, making phone calls, and getting work done, rather than just sitting in traffic or concentrating on monotonous motorway driving.

Jen-Hsun Huang, President and Chief Executive Officer at chip-maker NVIDIA, thinks the car as an office away from the office is a perfectly viable option: “The car is the ultimate mobile computer. With onboard supercomputing chips, futuristic cars of our dreams will no longer be science fiction.”

However, despite the leaps and bounds made in autonomous vehicle development of late, allowing systems to take greater responsibility for the control of vehicles will still initially require the driver to pay attention to the road, to monitor for situations where the automated systems may struggle to cope.

Bryan Porter, Editor of the Handbook of Traffic Psychology, and Professor and Ph.D. Programs Director of the Department of Psychology, Old Dominion University, Virginia, is in two minds about whether the car could soon become a mobile office: “We are absolutely going to see the attempted dissemination of autonomous vehicles throughout the US, Western Europe, and Australia at least, and such testing is already here. Counterbalancing this trend will be the challenge that must be overcome before we can call the car an office.” Indeed, a fear echoed by many is that an autonomous car simply will not be able to  compete with human skill.

Mobile office

Double workload

Human error is currently a contributory factor in more than 90% of collisions – a fact which could be remedied by an effective autonomous transport system. But before the car can perform autonomously, completely unaccompanied by a driver, many developments will need to take place. Indeed safety research will need to be ongoing: Dr. Nicholas Reed, Principal Human Factors Researcher at the Transport Research Laboratory (TRL), predicts that new dangers will present themselves through the use of autonomous office systems.

“It creates potential risk in that drivers will have the opportunity to be distracted, and may seek stimulation, by other tasks when their attention is still required – with the danger that they fail to respond effectively when their input is required,” said Reed.

TRL is an independent company which has long had an interest in the concept of autonomous vehicles, and is currently investigating and evaluating what is needed for the successful deployment of increasingly intelligent vehicles from various perspectives, including those of the driver and the road network operator.

Mobile office 2The next level, according to Reed, is for the vehicle to take full responsibility in situations such as highway driving, where the human driver will be able to engage in other tasks, but regain control when needed. However, Reed continued, “It will be important to ensure that if the driver is required to resume control  by reaching the end of the highway or because the vehicle encounters conditions for which it is not prepared, they can do so in a manner that is timely, and such that they have sufficient situation awareness of the current vehicle, traffic and environment conditions.”

Mark Scerbo, Professor of Human Factors in the Psychology department of Old Dominion University, holds an opposing view, believing that a human driver regaining control of an automated car may not be possible in an emergency situation: “Researchers who study user or pilot interaction with automated systems have found that they can become overly complacent in operating the aircraft. This can lead to several serious problems. First, they tend to accept that the automation is working properly and spend less time monitoring it. Thus, if the technology should fail they are less likely to notice it and take corrective action in a timely manner.”

Scerbo continued, “My own research and that of others shows that this problem becomes more severe with more reliable systems, and prolonged reliance on automated systems can result in skill degradation. That is, when the user needs to take back control it may require a period of skill readjustment. In emergency situations, that period of readjustment may be too long to avoid an adverse outcome.”

So will we be able to rely on autonomous or semi-autonomous cars to keep us safe? Despite Scerbo’s concerns, Reed thinks we can, “Predictions by a number of major players suggest that this timeframe is reasonable. However, although the technology is maturing rapidly, and I’m sure will lead to significant improvements in road safety, there is still a lot to learn about how human drivers will interact with such systems. It will be interesting to observe whether the introduction of automation leads to any unanticipated adverse behavioural consequences that result in safety risks previously not considered.”

Overcoming obstacles

This gradual extension of situations where a driver is able to engage in other tasks when driving will require vehicle/system manufacturers and the insurance industry to figure out where the risk lies in automated driving situations, and who is responsible for paying for that risk. “We also need to develop a better understanding of how drivers will interact with automation systems and the extent to which their use requires additional driver training and/or leads to skill degradation of drivers, if drivers become habituated to the vehicle detecting hazards and applying a suitable response,” said Reed.

Agreeing with Reed, Porter commented, “The need for operator’s attention at some point will not go away. It’s clear we have more to do in that arena and in other areas to support the expectation drivers can play an inactive role in an automated vehicle.”

Another obstacle which needs to be overcome, before the widespread use of cars as mobile offices can occur, is supporting infrastructure. Similar to electric vehicle charging points, road systems with the infrastructure to support a network of mobile offices has not yet been deployed. “Specifically, we are not close to having a system where drivers know with certainty that vehicles around them are automated or are communicating with their own vehicles. There is a lag in car deployment, and years that used cars remain on the market,” Porter added.

Staying on

Growing hunger for connectivity means that drivers now expect to have a fast connection wherever they go – and it is set to be an integral part of any potential mobile office.

Staying connected to the Internet while driving has never been so important and will undoubtedly be key to remaining productive on the move. OEMs and suppliers are racing to keep up with the pace of change seen in the consumer electronics industry, and customer demand for in-car infotainment and connectivity is constantly rising.

A recent study by Deloitte supported this, showing that almost three quarters of Gen Y consumers (72%) want technology that recognises the presence of other vehicles on the road, while 63% want technology that lets them know when they have exceeded the speed limit.

CES Chevrolet OnStar
Senior Vice President Global Chevrolet Alan Batey (right) shares the stage with President and
CEO of AT&T Mobility Ralph de la Vega and moderator Morgan Webb during the introduction of
the new OnStar 4G LTE connection in Chevrolet vehicles, running on AT&T’s network

From this comes a new breed of connected cars, inspiring ever more enduring relationships between driver and OEM. Now, from the click of a button through to touch and voice controls, drivers have access to a multitude of in-car devices that, with the introduction of open source development platforms, are rapidly expanding, helping to turn vehicles into connected – and ultimately intelligent – cars.

One supplier working towards staying connected while on the move is Harman, the global audio and infotainment group. Forming the core of the BMW ConnectedDrive experience, the Harman infotainment unit delivers a seamless experience into the vehicle, combining wireless connectivity, enhanced navigation and even productivity applications that transform the car into a mobile office safely and intuitively.

Road work

While the technology for the mobile office may be almost here, a full diffusion of it into our culture is not. Porter noted, “We are much more likely to discuss the interaction of automation and manual driving vehicles, and that interaction’s effects on safety and risk, than on whether drivers can do office work or be able to give up all decision-making to automation.”

Alongside automation, suppliers and OEMs alike are working on the necessary car connection to the Internet. Although many have established a connected experience for the driver, building this into a fully-autonomous in-car experience has not yet become a reality.

 “Consumer technology reveals the art of the possible and the car is the latest mobile device for many consumers,” said Philip Monks, Automotive Managing Director at Accenture UK & Ireland, but before this can happen, many challenges undoubtedly need to be overcome.

This article was first published in the Q1 2014 issue of Automotive World Megatrends Magazine. Follow this link to download the full issue

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