Google and the Self-Driving Delusion

In his January 7 column in the Wall Street Journal, Hollman W. Jenkins, Jr. raises the question about how a driver can remain alert enough to respond within a few seconds if the computer controlled car decides to hand back control to him.  This same question was raised by panel members at one of the ITS World Congress sessions in Detroit.  The transition from computer control of the car to driver control of the car will be one of the human factors issues that must be addressed before we can expect the brave new world where humans are no longer driving vehicles.

His column notes the Audi demonstration of its “piloted driving” technology on a trip from Silicon Valley  to Las Vegas.  The system demonstrated is an extension of existing safety technology designed to relieve drivers of tedious or burdensome tasks.  Drivers were supposed to be able to hand control over to a computer when creeping along at stop-and-go traffic or when driving on the freeway.  To maintain fixed freeway speed, the computer was supposed to be able to cope with slow traffic by changing lanes and passing without assistance from the driver.  That raises the question about why the driver would activate such a system except to turn his attention elsewhere.  Yet the piloted driving system expects the driver to remain alert enough to respond within a few seconds if the computer decides to hand control back to him.  If the driver is not ready, reportedly the car will turn on its flashers and find a way to bring itself to a complete stop.  This system may not be on a retail car in the near future.

Toyota, on the other hand, believes that computer technology exists to compensate for the driver’s incompetence rather than to accommodate a driver’s desire to do something else.  Car makers are torn by a feeling that they must compete with Google’s efforts so as not to seem technologically retrograde.  What is Google’s intention with its driverless car, if it will never be a real-world product?  Is this a branding exercise, a ticket to free media, a way to market Google software to auto consumers on onboard infotainment systems?  Never mind the false expectations it raises in the driving public.  Never mind the pressure it puts on real auto makers to pay lip service to autonomous driving they will not be able to deliver.

As transportation infrastructure professionals contemplate a future with autonomous vehicles, we need to remember that human factors still count as we design transportation systems.  Not all human capabilities can be automated, and the transition from automated to human operations is a key to the acceptance of the technology.