Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Autonomous Cars

As someone who did her dissertation on human-automation interaction, this article on CNN certainly caught my eye. I wanted to dissect the issue and examine the pros and cons of driverless cars.


  • Reduce driver workload: In this day and age, any extra time is good. With a car that drives on its own, drivers can now offload their attention to other tasks.
  • More safety: Accidents caused as a result of driver distraction can be avoided as long as the system is reliable.
  • Help the impaired: Individuals with difficulty driving (e.g., the blind) can now easily travel around.
  • Reduce carbon footprint: The automated system would be better at maximizing fuel efficiency in comparison to a human driver.


  • Out of the loop syndrome: The catch as is stated in the article is that “though a driver is not needed, one is in the front seat to take control when needed”. So what happens when the system fails - Will the operator in the front seat be able to take over control? 
    • A lot of research in the human-automation interaction area, including my own work, has shown that fully automated systems are not desirable as these have the potential to leave the operator out of the decision-making loop. 
    • Operators become over-reliant on automated systems and fail to monitor the system. Several factors are responsible for this – high automation reliability, automation consistency, when operator’s confidence in the automation exceeds confidence in self and so on. 
    • The costs associated with overreliance on automation are unfortunately higher for higher degrees of automation.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) also has plans to modernize the future airspace to account for the increasing traffic volume and this proposal involves a lot of automated systems in the cockpit and in the air traffic control facilities. With all these efforts going on in the road and in the sky, will the world be a safer place for humans? I am certainly not implying that we should stop making technological advancements but when doing so, the human performance consequences associated with these should not be forgotten and should be examined. 

Photo credit Flickr user Steve Jurvetson under the creative commons license.


  1. I think there is a whole other category of cons that need be considered. What are the risks involved in turning vehicular transportation from a massive self-organizing system of independent agents "following" agreed upon rules to a massive centrally organized system? What system level failures could occur?

    My opinion: human-in-the-loop makes for a more robust system: perhaps more local failures, but fewer (or no) global failures of a catastrophic nature. After all, each driver is a different adaptive control system.