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Can You Be Trusted With a Driverless Car?

As autonomous technology races ahead, experts wonder if drivers can safely give up the wheel

By Gary Drevitch

Are we too eager to welcome robot chauffeurs?

Breathless reports about driverless cars being tested on America's highways have some tech buffs dreaming of the day when we commute and cruise, faster than ever, without lifting a finger, our vehicles guided by GPS technology and a battery of intricate sensors.

Google chairman Eric Schmidt believes his company's driverless prototype represents its greatest technological innovation. "It's really an error that we're allowed to drive the car," he said recently.

But even as development races ahead, some leading tech experts say, "Not so fast."

(MORE: Will Your Next Car Drive Itself?)

The issue with driverless cars, says Bryan Reimer, a research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's AgeLab, isn't the machines. It's us. Young or old, he's not ready to trust anyone with a vehicle that so fully turns the driver into a passenger. (He also points out, for example, that New England roads, especially in midwinter, offer an array of challenges far beyond those posed by southwestern highways, where Google has been testing its prototype.)

Reimer's research focuses on how drivers can be trained to understand and trust new vehicle technologies — and a prime concern is driver engagement. "We have case study upon case study of how individuals are terrible overseers of autonomous systems," Reimer says. It's human nature, he adds, to pay less attention as a passenger than as a driver. But even in cars that can largely function without drivers, human operators need to remain alert to be able to take over at a moment's notice. In those situations, inattention could be fatal.

To maintain safety, automakers need to strike a balance between developing cars that assist drivers and those that take over for them. "When the automobile does too much, drivers can become underaroused," Reimer says. "They need to be doing enough to remain actively engaged. The real question is not our ability to technologically evolve autonomous vehicles. It's how to connect the driver in a cohesive way with those technologies. We have not figured that out."

Cars That Can Wake You Up

One way automakers are solving that problem is by developing biometric monitors that can gauge driver alertness — and health. Technology already being tested by such companies as Toyota, Ford and Mercedes can measure a driver's breathing rate for signs of stress and if high levels are detected, disable his or her smartphone to limit distraction. Other monitors can measure a driver's blood-sugar level and, if it's found to be unsafe, warn him or her of the risk of losing consciousness or even take steps to pull the car over. Similar sensors can measure brain waves, heart rate and facial temperature and detect signs of drowsiness. If a driver has a heart attack, his or her car will automatically pull over, stop and call for help. These biometric monitors are crucial to the development of autonomous car systems, which will demand "a cohesive sense of the driver's state at any particular period of time," Reimer says.

This new technology has obvious benefits for older drivers. Cars enabled with biometric monitors are expected to help some seniors stay behind the wheel longer. But while "a large focus of our effort is on technology that can help older adults," Reimer says, "the real benefit is for everybody."


(MORE: New Auto Technology Helps Drivers With Limitations)

Some advanced safety technology, focused on external dangers, is already showroom-ready, like cars that can slow down, without driver intervention, if a collision with a pedestrian or other obstacle appears imminent. As The Atlantic Wire's report on technology unveiled at the recent Consumer Electronics Show explains, "When nothing feels wrong, the car lets the driver do the work; when it perceives a threat, the robotic system kicks in."

An Overhaul for Driver's Ed

Introducing advanced technology into automobiles is never simple, though. When anti-lock braking systems were introduced, Reimer says, older drivers tended to respond to the unusual sound of the system by taking their foot off the brake, while younger drivers quickly developed a tendency to drive faster, sometimes recklessly so. "As we evolve technology, we need to think deeply about how it is going to impact behavior," Reimer says. "We need to develop technology that can be integrated with the experience."

For example, Reimer says, automakers need to make sure that when an auto edges too close to another car and a warning light or alarm goes off, the driver's first response will be, "I'm going to hit another driver," and not, "What's this thing trying to tell me?"
(MORE: Taking Away an Older Driver's Keys)

"We've not even begun to think of those complexities," Reimer says. "We're assuming that the driver who works within an advanced technology will be the same driver afterward, but not necessarily. I would argue the driver will be nowhere near as capable as today."

Even as we build more advanced sensors and autonomous features into our cars, "for the near future and perhaps farther, the driver is still the responsible party," Reimer says. "How do we reinvent driver's education?"

Gary Drevitch was senior Web editor for Next Avenue's Caregiving and Health channels. Read More
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