Friday, 21 August 2009

An autopian future?

I don’t feel right snaffling someone else’s blog posts, but I just had to pick up on this gem from Tom Vanderbilt, as it’s so close to my own research interests. (Tom’s is an excellent blog for driving buffs, too, and he’s always got something interesting.)

The ‘Autonomobile’ from Mike and Maaike is a design exercise to come up with a driverless car. This kind of thing comes around from time to time, and the Autonomobile is reminiscent of Concept 2096 (not a great link, but the only one I could find with an image) – another one developed to mark 100 years of the automobile, and an early inspiration in my PhD work. Interestingly, as I remarked on Tom’s blog, these are very similar but the anticipated timeframe is coming down – by 50 years, as the Autonomobile is apparently set for 2040.

I’m less convinced. Yes, these guys are right that technically speaking, we’re not far off. In controlled, closed-loop systems it is possible – see the Heathrow Personal Rapid Transit on their website, which we’ve been looking at lately. But there’s a bunch more human factors which mean that last 20 per cent (or 10, or 5) will be the real struggle. Mainly it’s the reliability issue – until the systems become so good that we can literally sit back and read the paper, there’ll always be the expectation of a human being there to supervise and save the day. And if there’s one fundamental which has come out of all the research on automation – vehicle or otherwise – it’s that humans don’t make good supervisors. We’re meant to do, not watch.

Besides, as others have pointed out, such ‘fully automated’ cars already exist to let us work, socialise etc. during the drive – they’re called taxis. And that’s the other side of the human factors equation – the social acceptability of automated cars. For one, a lot of people drive because they enjoy it. But the harder one to crack will be trust in these systems – will people ever really let go and switch off? And what happens if(when) there’s an accident – who’s to blame?

Driving Ergonomics Special Interest Group

Yesterday I went to the inaugural meeting of the Ergonomics Society’s newest Special Interest Group (SIG) – the Driving Ergonomics SIG. This was hosted at Cranfield University, though the SIG has been set up and chaired by Nick Gkikas of Loughborough University.

There’s currently some 20-odd members in the SIG, and more than half of those turned up yesterday. It’s a really good mix of academic and industrial members too, with representatives from the likes of Jaguar, Nissan, and TRL.

The meeting had a speed-dating feel to it, with rapid fire presentations from a selection of attendees – Steve Summerskill from Loughborough, Chris Day from Nissan, me, and Nick Reed from TRL – all in less than an hour! But this was quite nice to get a sampler of the backgrounds of members. And whether by accident or design, there was good balance between physical ergonomics (Steve and Chris) and the more cognitive side (Nick and me).

It already promises to be a highly active SIG, with much discussion (at the time and afterwards via the new LinkedIn group) about the objectives of the SIG and what various members want to get out of it. We’re planning to meet quarterly, and longer-term ambitions are to have some outputs – maybe a conference session, for instance. I certainly think it’s a Good Thing, and with such an enthusiastic membership it has a lot of momentum behind it.

I’m only sorry I couldn’t get to the pub for more discussion afterwards – but then I was driving home, so couldn’t have sampled the local’s finest anyway…