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Driverless Car or Lax Driver?

Unsafe Drivers and Cars

Photo of dog sitting in the driving seat of a car - owner driven to despair

The report on a fatal crash in March 2018, in the USA, involving a vehicle with an automated driving system has now been published. The likely causes appear to be a combination of inattention by the backup driver, inappropriate actions of the automatic driving system and inadequate safety policies of the operating company. That is according to the investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board. [1]

At first reading, the probable causes seem incredible:

  • The backup driver was allegedly distracted by watching her mobile phone and so was not watching the road until a second or so before the accident;
  • The advance braking system was switched off as the operating company relied upon the backup driver to carry out emergency braking;
  • The vehicle was unable to identify that there was a pedestrian in its path and could not predict her path across the road;
  • The operating company was criticised for having an ineffective safety culture at the time but improvments are stated to have been made since then.

Human Discretion – Is It Reliable?

As the backup driver was there to keep a sharp eye on what the vehicle was doing in respect of the road conditions, it shows a further hazard of driverless cars i.e. the watchkeeper/passenger. As we know, drivers are liable to suffer from tiredness, distractions etc. but if the ‘backup driver’ is an essential complement to the vehicle, are driverless cars going to be more safe? It seems not at the current time.

The National Transportation Safety Board has made several recommendations to tighten up on the testing of driverless vehicles and the procedures for the safety assessment of vehicles on the road.

Without wishing to cause further grief to the family, it is unclear what the writers of the report meant really when they referred to, “The pedestrian’s unsafe behavior in crossing the street in front of the approaching vehicle at night and at a location without a crosswalk … ” Were the writers implying that the technology was fit for purpose? Surely, a driverless vehicle should be designed and programmed to pick up a moving object in the vicinity or pathway of the vehicle? It then should alert the ‘backup driver’ to that object. At least then, the driver is on notice to check visually what the object is and take action to deal with the situation.

Alertness of ‘Passengers’

In the future, one presumes that if passengers are being carried in a driverless vehicle, one of those may have the role of a lookout or backup driver, whichever term is preferred. In practice, it is likely that the lookout would be less alert to the road conditions, compared to an actual driver, because, having less to do, his/her attention is likely to stray as the individual is likely to be looking around or mentally drifting off. Hence, any unexpected incident or danger not picked up by the technology of the car, may not be spotted in time by the lookout to avoid an accident.

The designers and programmers should be required to take this into account and develop effective aids both to alert the lookout and allow him/her to gain control of the vehicle in good time.

What do you think?

We published an earlier article on driverless cars and the current shortfalls in technology. That article can be seen via this link Driverless = Discretionless

Sources:
[1] NATIONAL TRANSPORTATION SAFETY BOARD Public Meeting of November 19, 2019 (Information subject to editing)

© 2019 Jim Harrington, HR Management Dimensions.

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