As regular readers of my blog can attest, the technology underpinning autonomous vehicles has come in leaps and bounds in recent years. Indeed, the rate of progress has been such that many manufacturers are now confident they can begin to roll-out autonomous vehicles in the near future.
Alas, such a roll-out is likely to hinge less on technical issues and more on psychological ones. A recent paper, published in Nature, highlights some of the psychological roadblocks that might slow the roll-out of autonomous cars and proposes some ways of overcoming them.
Making Ethical Decisions
The first issue the authors identify involves ethics. The trolley dilemma is the prism through which many of these discussions revolve, but however it's framed, the public is generally very uneasy about their vehicle making ethical decisions on their behalf, especially when it comes to who to harm when a collision is inevitable.
The authors advocate that whilst these concerns are certainly valid, the safe performance of autonomous vehicles — especially compared to human-driven ones — should be emphasized more to highlight the benefits the technology will bring. Indeed, they go as far as to suggest that people might even use autonomous vehicles as a "virtue signal" to highlight their commitment to safe motoring, with the Prius being a good example of how this worked in the past with showing off one's eco credentials.
The authors believe that the public may be unduly swayed by news reports, such as that Tesla's "autopilot" mode was believed to be responsible for a fatality in 2016. Despite being incredibly rare, such incidents do nonetheless grab headlines.
They suggest the best way to counter this is frank communication from both policy makers and car manufacturers. It's better to try and prepare the public for inevitable accidents now, whilst at the same time reminding them of the huge improvements in safety that the technology will deliver.
A huge amount of work goes into ensuring the algorithms that power autonomous vehicles are as good as possible, with vehicles trained on millions of miles of driving. Despite this, it is perhaps understandable that humans struggle to truly trust a system that they have little real understanding of.
Suffice to say, a detailed explanation of how an autonomous vehicle works is not suitable, as the vast majority of people have nowhere near the knowledge in AI to make sense of any information they're given. It may even cause unnecessary anxiety. Nonetheless, it's a challenge the authors believe the industry needs to take on, with effort being made to communicate the workings of autonomous vehicles in a way that lay people can understand.
Public anxiety around autonomous vehicles is well-known. Indeed, only recently I covered a study from IMechE showing that 66% of people feel uncomfortable traveling in a driverless car at 70mph. There was also a big discrepancy between young and old, with younger people significantly more accepting of autonomous technology than their older peers. Some 45% of 25 to 36-year-olds would be quite happy to travel in an autonomous vehicle at such a speed, compared to just 8% for those over 75 years of age.
What's more, women appeared to be more cautious than men, with just 28% of women saying they would be comfortable versus 40% of men.
It's clear that the transition to a driverless future will be challenging, but the Nature paper provides some good tips to help smooth that transition.