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(Don’t) Look Down: How to Keep Distracted Humans Safe in Autonomous Cars

By: Bridget Clerkin January 11, 2019
Interiors of cars are going to change as self-driving cars become more prevalent, but should account for safety at all costs.
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It’s not hyperbolic to say that the rise of autonomous cars will change nearly everything about the world—including how we experience traffic accidents.

While the computerized chauffeurs have been widely touted for their potential to all but eliminate roadway fatalities, even the most sophisticated program will slip up sometimes—or encounter a collision that’s impossible to avoid.

And though the technology is seemingly everywhere in the news, it’s far less ubiquitous on the actual streets: Many in the industry estimate that it will take at least a generation for self-driving cars to fully take over.

In the interim, the vehicles will be sharing the streets with their far-less-than-perfect human counterparts, and accidents will inevitably happen along the learning curve.

But even as autonomous features become more commonplace, humans have learned some new driving habits of their own—including the increased tendency to give into distractions.

Coupled with the nearly boundless interior design opportunities that will sprout once there’s no longer a need for pedals or steering wheels, the inclination to indulge in the welcome diversion of a cell phone will likely only grow, keeping more riders’ eyes off the road and unaware of any pending impacts.

And when robbed of those precious milliseconds of preparation for an oncoming incident, our bodies will react in completely different ways during a crash than have been previously tested for, driving a need for entirely new safety features to accompany the new-age transportation.

Researchers at Toyota have already began looking into the phenomenon of protecting preoccupied passengers of future autonomous cars. So far, these experts have only been able to definitively decide that even more research is needed.

The issue has gotten another look from the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society (HFES)—a global group of scientists dedicated to keeping designs efficient and appropriate for our bodies. They’ve come up with a few of their own recommendations for keeping us safe from ourselves.

Careful Testing

First and foremost, the Society calls for in-depth testing of any vehicles designed to cart unsuspecting humans around.

The recommendation may seem obvious, but the HFES highlights a few issues in particular that will help eliminate the need for swift movements—and the dangerous jostling of a distracted passenger—including special preparation for all manner of weather events. Ensuring the cars can accurately read road signage and detect and avoid any and all obstacles that may unexpectedly enter the road is also paramount.

Support on Every Level

pedestrian crossing road on their phone
A possible use for manual mode in an autonomous car would be to stop the car should a pedestrian unexpectedly cross in front of it.

Fortune favors the prepared. And to make all future automotive trips as fortuitous as possible, autonomous cars should be equipped for any situation—including those where its own automation systems fail.

According to the HFES, the rides should be designed to easily accommodate any switch over to manual mode, as well as cover the needs of any human suddenly finding themselves in a situation where they have to start driving.

Even when things are functioning fine, there should be clear signals relayed to passengers about which mode the car is driving in—as well as its intended trajectory—to help occupants stay as aware as possible on their ride.

And the vehicles should be able to accommodate any rider that comes to their door, including those with physical disabilities, the Society recommends.

Safe & Understandable

It’s not just those inside the vehicle who will need clear direction. It’s imperative that any autonomous car of the future be able to plainly communicate with any cyclists or pedestrians on the street.

This will help all involved anticipate any future moves the vehicles may make—and avoid any sudden movements that could lead to further incidents and injuries.

Knowledge is Power

Finally, the group promotes widespread training and education on the capabilities—and limits—of each autonomous vehicle, especially as more self-driving models are rolled out by manufacturers.

An informed passenger is a safe passenger, the thinking goes, giving those going along for the ride a much better idea of what could happen should the worst occur, and hopefully preventing any physical harm that can come from a panicked response.

And in the interim, safety drivers tasked with getting the autonomous rides up to speed should also be well-schooled in a car’s various system. A monitoring device would add an extra layer of security, the HFES argues, ensuring that eyes are on the road at all times—at least for as long as they have to be.

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