Storm clouds loom over the connected car

The search for the ideal degree of vehicle connectivity continues with two news items from either end of the connected spectrum. They highlight the challenges carmakers face in the coming months. At the heart of the debate: are today’s drivers too distracted, even for driverless cars?

Hang up the phone

The first news report revealed at the start of March 2017 that UK penalties for driving while using a mobile phone would be doubled. Recognising the extreme negative impact on driver attentiveness and ability to perform manoeuvres while holding a phone, license endorsement for using a non-handsfree phone rose to six points and the fine to £200. For new drivers with less than two years on the road, this means a ban. Similarly, for drivers with two existing, even minor, speeding tickets the additional six points also means a ban.

Road campaigners would argue that this legislation does not go far enough. They argue that all the other bells and whistles inside the connected car – HMI interfaces, concierge services, text message relays and app displays –are equally as dangerous.

“Enormous distraction”, says the road safety lobbyists Brakeof all the in-car services vehicle connectivity provides; the Institute for Advanced Motorists (IAM) called for strategy to “avoid a serious problem” created by being able to access phone apps via the car’s touchscreen. The action of holding a mobile phone seems moot. If the fallible human brain is no longer up to the job of propelling several tons of metal down the road, surely the issue of distracted drivers is only going to hasten the advent of the fully driverless car?

Driverless challenges

Which brings us to the second news item, this time from the end of March 2017. An Uber driverless SUV collided with a human-driven vehicle in Arizona. An engineer and driver were in the vehicle while it drove in driverless mode but no-one was injured. The accident happened when the other party failed to yield while the Uber had right of way. There is nothing in the incident to suggest the driverless vehicle did anything wrong and Uber resumed trials three days after the accident. These two incidents bookend a question that is at the heart of the autonomous vehicle debate: “How much driver does a driverless car need?”

Director at Wills Towers Watson, Robin Harbage, says: “There are so many ways of being distracted and drivers letting their minds wander. The autonomous vehicle is talked about as a line in the sand but, in reality, OEMs are moving more gradually towards it with services such as lane control, emergency braking and blind side warnings. These are all things the car can do when its driver isn’t paying as much attention as they should.”

How much connectivity is too much?

Volvo’s senior director of autonomous driving and connectivity strategy, Martin Kristensson, doesn’t think in-car connectivity is a deal-breaker when it comes to driver inattention but does admit that finding the right level of service is critical. He said: “I don’t see the risk of you running off the road because you’re [verbally] checking Facebook while driving. As OEMs, we do have labs with giant simulators testing out whether something is distracting or not – buttons versus touchpads, gestures or touchscreens. Voice controls are certainly less distracting.”

The amount of data flowing from the car and its environment has a lot of potential for carmakers to somewhat ‘save drivers from themselves’. The marketing campaign around mobile phone use recognises the lack of willpower drivers still have over using their phones and so the strapline is ‘make the glove compartment the phone compartment’. In other words, out of sight, out of mind.

From a connectivity perspective, executives have tossed around the idea that in-car connectivity may be such that phone or other distracting services can be temporarily suspended in high density traffic or at moments where driver focus is needed – complex junctions or unusual road conditions. “App providers are talking with insurance companies about putting functionality on phones that will turn it off where the driver doesn’t have such restraint. It’s already there and it’s logical that this will be extended further,” Harbage adds.

Kristensson explains: “We are looking at driving occasion solutions. If you have an incoming call we won’t necessarily let it ring while you’re in the middle of a roundabout. The system might wait five minutes to tell you about a text. There are things that can be done to reduce a driver’s cognitive load. Adding in solutions such as adaptive cruise control and driver assist are already semi-autonomous and we can show those do reduce the cognitive load overall.”

The industry as a whole, Kristensson concludes, is examining just what autonomous means, from level two and pilot assist systems, to level four where you can just “take a nap and it will drive”. One thing is clear, at this point in time there can be no happy medium. “You don’t want Level Three, somewhere in between Two and Four where you can do other things but have to be on standby for an emergency. That’s just the worst,” he warns.


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