The self-driving car is a logical evolution from the various safety features which are included in today’s cars. The developments have included some form of automated driving assist, including parking and braking. With the coming automated cars expected to be released to the market very soon, drivers would have nothing to do while the cars drive themselves. When that happens, there would be some changes in the car’s interiors, its function as well as the attitude of the passengers.
Safety Features and the Self-Driving Car
The autonomous vehicle did not start out as a driverless car. Car manufacturers added dynamic safety features which help prevent accidents. These tools for driver assistance were developed with the aim of improving the various tasks associated with driving. These included ABS brakes, rear sensors and cameras, as well as driver assisted emergency braking. Adding more assistance would help to lessen the stress and information load on the driver.
The concept of a self-driving car was a leap forward, and intended to be the end goal. To reach those goals, new technologies were developed, allowing the vehicle to be aware of its environment. The problems encountered along the way are all technological issues, the solutions to which are either off the shelf or are already within reach of current technology. What was not foreseen was the effect on the passengers and the drivers. With nothing to do, the user is no longer a driver, but another passenger. This is a big effect on the owner and operator.
For the purpose of classification, there are 5 autonomous levels of driving, plus Level 0, which No Automation. Level 1 is Driver Assistance. The driver operates the vehicle, but there are some functions which assist automatically. These functions are not too obvious, but are noticeable to a driver who has driven older vehicles. Level 2 is Partial Automation. The driver monitors the driving environment, but there are some automated functions. The driver has to be ready to step in and interfere at any time. It is safe to say that the driver has to have his hands on the steering wheel at all times, just in case. Level 3 is Conditional Automation. The environment monitoring is done by the vehicle. There are conditions where the vehicle can function without intervention. A lot of Level 3 vehicles can drive unattended while running at 37 miles per hour or slower. Level 4 is High Automation. The vehicle monitors driving conditions, and can practically drive itself unattended. It informs the driver that conditions are safe, before the driver can transfer control to the car. Level 5 is Complete Automation. The car can monitor and drive on its own. There is no need for any driver controls.
Interaction Between Car and Driver
The above levels of autonomous driving are important to consider. Only in Level 5 is the driver no longer able to interfere with the driving. Currently, a lot of vehicles are at Level 3, but even at Level 2, there are drivers who forget that they are driving and begin to let the car drive itself. Two things are happening to drivers. They are becoming more dependent on the car’s safety features; and they are losing some of the skills necessary for driving.
There is an increase in the number of accidents where the drivers are not as involved in driving as they ought to be. The drivers have become dependent on assisted brake systems. They no longer turn their heads to look at the sides or the rear of the car, depending instead on driver assistance systems when backing up the vehicle. They have forgotten the basics of defensive driving. For these kinds of drivers, autonomous cars cannot come soon enough.
As a result of the dependence on the automated systems which were meant to assist driving, drivers have also forgotten the same skills these assistive driving features were supposed to augment. Drivers who have been driving cars with automated parking features now have a hard time parking without these features.
There seems to be merit in Ford’s decision to skip Level 3 and go straight to Level 4. They don’t want the driver to be interfering with the automated system. With a Level 4 autonomy in place, the driver no longer has to touch the wheel once he transfers control to the autonomous driving system. The driver does not second-guess the vehicle.
What You Can do with Full Autonomy
There’s a reason that Level 5 is a driverless car; there’s simply no more need for a driver. The autonomous functions kick in the moment the vehicle is started. It monitors its environment, it drives the passengers, and it maintains the safety of the passengers as well as everyone else in its environment.
With this in mind, there is no more need for car controls, like the steering wheel, gas pedal, brake pedal and gear shift. The passenger gets in, the car is started, the destination is entered into the console and the car drives to the destination. Depending on the travel time, the passenger can do anything he wants. He can read a book, take a nap, work on his computer, check emails, browse the internet, or even play board games with a fellow passenger.
The change in roles creates a different dynamic for the car. For a long time, the car has been considered an extension of the home. With an autonomous vehicle, the passenger has time on his hands instead of driving.
A survey conducted among 130,000 car owners from all across the world were asked what would they be doing if they were riding an autonomous vehicle. 22% of respondents from Europe and North America answered that they would still be paying attention to the road, compared to only 16% of respondents. In North America, 14% answered that they would be communicating, which includes being on the phone, email, video chat, or messenger. In Europe, 17% said they would be communicating, while in Asia, 14% of respondents would be communicating.
For automobile manufacturers, they are already thinking of what former drivers and other passengers would be doing in their cars while it is in transit. The car makers envision a car which would serve as a “third space” which would bridge work and home. The concept of the third space is like that of a pub, a bar, or even a park where people are welcome and can be comfortable, it is inexpensive, accessible, with a regular group of people in attendance, and where old friends catch up with each other, and new friends are made. The concept of a car does not seem that way, unless the autonomous vehicle is involved in ride pooling of regulars. When people are in close proximity, they tend to socialize.
The third space does not happen on a commuter train because it is larger and has more people who randomly and infrequently interact with each other. This is different in a car, where the same small group of people would sit together as it drives itself to their destination.
The design of the fully autonomous car would also be different. There would be no more need to have all the seats facing in the same direction. They can be benches along the side of the car. Alternatively, the front seats can be facing the back and the other passengers. Normal seating can be two in front and two in the back, or it could have benches with three abreast.
Fully autonomous cars and self-driving vehicles will leave a bold impact in society. The transition from driver to passenger can be an opportunity for people to interact and socialize. Or it can just fizzle out, with everyone too busy with whatever they do on their smartphones, or their tablets.