If AVs (autonomous vehicles) are to become the future of transportation, a consumer’s first experience of traveling in one must be pleasant, even enjoyable, or it will be difficult to persuade them to repeat it. Unfortunately, the auto industry’s perfectly legitimate focus on the safety of AVs is tending to relegate consumer acceptance to secondary status.
This matters because the process by which the AI (artificial intelligence) controlling an AV is trained relies on testing the algorithms involved for their ability to produce appropriate actions under all circumstances. If they are developed from the outset only for safety, then subsequently attempting to add additional requirements, such as a smooth ride or optimum path selection, could invalidate all the testing and require new algorithms to be developed from scratch.
It is estimated that the industry has invested $80 billion in AV development in the last three years alone, equivalent to the GDP of a mid-sized country. The consequences of overlooking any of the fundamental requirements during development are clearly going to be commercially disastrous.
Most of us have traveled at some time or other with a poor or inattentive driver and witnessed examples of their erratic behavior: failure to anticipate speed bumps across the road or potholes in the vehicle’s path, last-minute braking for stationary traffic ahead, incorrect lane positioning at complex junctions, and so on. The negative consequences for the passenger can be both mental and physical, ranging from anxiety to outright fear and even nausea brought on by motion sickness.
The experienced and skilful driver anticipates and makes allowance for both everyday hazards and more unexpected events, driving smoothly through even the most crowded and complex traffic scenarios, making no sudden changes of speed and direction, yet without undue hesitation. If we are to tempt consumers into an AV on a regular or permanent basis, it is not enough to keep them safe—we must endow the AV with the capabilities of an expert driver.
A good indicator for passenger comfort is head toss—the motion of the human head in both the fore/aft and left/right directions. By maintaining this criterion below target values in all normal non-emergency vehicle maneuvers, the AV can protect occupants from the risk of motion sickness. More generally, configuring the AI to follow a path that minimizes speed and direction changes will improve passenger confidence, giving a reassuring impression that the vehicle “knows what it’s doing.”
The most valuable tool for developing these attributes in an AV is one of the new generation of highly dynamic driving simulators capable of realistically simulating sudden vehicle movements and responses to road surface changes. Ironically, though developed for use by human drivers to improve vehicle design before physical prototypes were available, the simulators are equally effective when used with an AV.
The high level of immersion (realism) provided in such a simulator, necessary to ensure a test driver reacts in a way that is fully representative of real life, is equally useful for the occupants of an AV. Their subjective assessment of the AV’s behavior, during a range of simulated driving scenarios, permits the algorithms to be thoroughly and repeatably tested in a safe and controlled environment. In the particular case of extreme situations, such as collision avoidance, these can be re-run until satisfactory with no risk of physical damage to life or property.
Modern simulators can even allow interaction between multiple vehicles, some of them under human control, and other road users, such as pedestrians. This enables the AV to experience the variability and unpredictability of human behavior and trains the AI more rapidly than could be achieved through physical mileage accumulation on a track.
There are many hurdles to overcome before AVs will be adopted across the globe, and the industry is correct to prioritize safety. However, by also subjecting humans as passengers in an AV at an early stage of its development will be critical to ensuring the industry’s commercial success is long lasting.