Reuters: Making cars safer: have the driver do less

A piece I wrote for Reuters. BBC version here

Making cars safer: have the driver do less

By Jeremy Wagstaff

SINGAPORE Tue Nov 11, 2014 4:00pm EST

Nov 12 (Reuters) – As millions of cars are under recall for potentially lethal air bags, designers are trying to reduce the need for the device – using sensors, radar, cameras and lasers to prevent collisions in the first place.

With driver error blamed for over 90 percent of road accidents, the thinking is it would be better to have them do less of the driving. The U.S.-based Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that forward-collision warning systems cut vehicle-to-vehicle crashes by 7 percent – not a quantum leap, but a potential life saver. Nearly 31,000 people died in car accidents in 2012 in the United States alone.

“Passive safety features will stay important, and we need them. The next level is now visible. Autonomous driving for us is clearly a strategy to realise our vision for accident-free driving,” said Thomas Weber, global R&D head at Mercedes-Benz .

While giving a computer full control of a car is some way off, there’s a lot it can do in the meantime.

For now, in some cars you can take your foot off the pedal and hands off the wheel in slow-moving traffic, and the car will keep pace with the vehicle in front; it can jolt you awake if it senses you’re nodding off; alert you if you’re crossing into another lane; and brake automatically if you don’t react to warnings of a hazard ahead.

How close this all comes to leaving the driver out of the equation was illustrated by an experiment at Daimler last year: adding just a few off-the-shelf components to an S-class Mercedes, a team went on a 100 km (62 mile) ride in Germany without human intervention. “The project was about showing how far you can go, not just with fancy lasers, but with stuff you can buy off the shelf,” said David Pfeiffer, one of the team.

Such features, however, require solving thorny problems, including how to avoid pedestrians.

While in-car cameras are good at identifying and classifying objects, they don’t work so well in fog or at night. Radar, on the other hand, can calculate the speed, distance and direction of objects, and works well in limited light, but can’t tell between a pedestrian and a pole. While traffic signs are stationary and similar in shape, people are often neither.

For a better fix on direction there’s LiDAR – a combination of light and radar – which creates a picture of objects using lasers. Velodyne’s sensors on Google’s autonomous car, for example, use up to 64 laser beams spinning 20 times per second to create a 360-degree, 3D view of up to several hundred metres around the car.

Mercedes’ ‘Stop-and-Go Pilot’ feature matches the speed of the car in front in slow traffic and adjusts steering to stay in lane using two ultrasonic detectors, five cameras and six radar sensors. “This technology is a first major step,” said R&D chief Weber. “(However distracted the driver is), the system mitigates any accident risk in front.”

HOLY GRAIL

The next stage, experts say, is a road network which talks to cars, and where cars talk to other cars. General Motors has said its 2017 Cadillac CTS will transmit and receive location, direction and speed data with oncoming vehicles via a version of Wi-Fi.

Other approaches include using cameras to monitor the driver. Abdelaziz Khiat, at Nissan Motor’s research centre in Japan, uses cameras to track the driver’s face to detect yawns, a drooping head suggesting drowsiness, or frowns that may indicate the onset of road rage.

These advanced safety features are fine – if you can afford them. The Insurance Institute survey found that the forward collision warning systems were available in fewer than one in every 20 registered vehicles in 2012.

In key markets across emerging Asia, says Klaus Landhaeusser, regional head of government relations at Bosch , many first-time car buyers don’t want to spend more than $2,500. For that, he said, “you won’t be able to introduce any safety features.”

Road conditions are also key. “It will be a long time before we have software and algorithms that can see everything happening” on the roads in emerging markets, said Henrik Kaar, at auto safety equipment market leader Autoliv Inc.

And not everyone welcomes this progress. Some drivers complain the technology is intrusive, or is inconsistent. “If a safety feature is seen as intrusive or bothersome, a driver may try to circumvent or disable it,” said Chris Hayes, a vice president at insurer Travelers.

The key appears to be ensuring that while humans remain in charge of the vehicle, they have good information and features that correct the errors they make.

“For a long time, people thought it was an all-or-nothing jump between humans in charge and fully autonomous vehicles,” said Michael James, senior research scientist at Toyota Motor’s U.S. technical centre. “I don’t think that’s the case anymore. People see it as a more gradual transition.”

 

(Additional reporting by Norihiko Shirouzu; Editing by Ian Geoghegan)

BBC: Cars we can’t drive

Let’s face it: we’re not about to have driverless cars in our driveway any time soon. Soonest: a decade. Latest: a lot longer, according to the folk I’ve spoken to.

But in some ways, if you’ve got the dosh, you can already take your foot off the gas and hands off the steering wheel. Higher end cars have what are called active safety features, such as warning you if you stray out of your lane, or if you’re about to fall asleep, or which let the car take over the driving if you’re in heavy, slow moving traffic. Admittedly these are just glimpses of what could happen, and take the onus off you for a few seconds, but they’re there. Already.

The thinking behind all this: More than 90% (roughly, depends who you talk to) of all accidents are caused by human error. So, the more we have the car driving, the fewer the accidents. And there is data that appears to support that. The US-based Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that forward collision warning systems led to a 7% reduction in collisions between vehicles.

But that’s not quite the whole story. For one thing, performing these feats isn’t easy. Getting a car, for example, to recognise a wandering pedestrian is one of the thorniest problems that a scientist working in computer vision could tackle, because you and I may look very different — unlike, say, another car, or a lamppost, or a traffic sign. We’re tall, short, fat, thin, we were odd clothes and we are unpredictable — just because we’re walking towards the kerb at a rate of knots, does that mean we’re about to walk in to the road?

Get this kind of thing wrong and you might have a top of the range Mercedes Benz slam on the brakes for nothing. The driver might forgive the car’s computer the first time, but not the second. And indeed, this is a problem for existing safety features — is that a beep to warn you when you’re reversing too close to an object, or you haven’t put your seatbelt on, or you’re running low on windscreen fluid, or bceause you’re straying into oncoming traffic? We quickly filter out warning noises and flashing lights, as airplane designers have found to their (and their pilots’) cost.

Indeed, there’s a school of thought that says that we’re making a mistake by even partially automating this kind of thing. For one thing, we need to know what exactly is going on: are we counting on our car to warn us about things that might happen, and, in the words of the tech industry “mitigate for us”? Or are these interventions just things that might happen some of the time, if we’re lucky, but not something we can rely on?

If so, what exactly is the point of that? What would be the point of an airbag that can’t be counted on to deploy, or seatbelts that only work some of the time? And then there’s the bigger, philosophical issue: for those people learning to drive for the first time, what are these cars telling them: that they don’t have to worry too much about sticking to lanes, because the car will do it for you? And what happens when they find themselves behind the wheel of a car that doesn’t have those features?

Maybe it’s a good thing we’re seeing these automated features now — because it gives us a chance to explore these issues before the Google car starts driving itself down our street and we start living in a world, not just of driverless cars, but of cars that people don’t know how to drive.

This is a piece I wrote for the BBC World Service, based on a Reuters story.

Design: It’s All About Alarm Clocks

Business writer and entrepreneur Seth Godin throws out product ideas like other people throw out orange juice cartons:

For twenty cents or so, alarm clock manufacturers can add a chip that not only knows the time (via a radio signal) but knows what day it is too. Which means that they can add a switch that says “weekends.” Which means that the 98% of the population that doesn’t want to wake up on the same time on weekends as they do on weekdays will be happier (and better rested.)

But he’s not touting a new alarm clock, he’s making a point: “So why doesn’t every alarm clock have this feature?” he asks. “Because most people in that business are busy doing their jobs (distribution, promotion, pricing, etc.), not busy making products that people actually want to buy–and talk about.”

Indeed, companies are always far too busy doing what they’re doing to think about what they’re doing and wonder whether they can do it better. And, as Seth points out, this is because companies are compartmentalized into responsibilities, and brave is the person who tries to straddle departments.

The weekend alarm clock won’t be made by a big alarm clock company, it’ll be designed by someone like Gauri Nanda, who I mentioned a few weeks back as the inventor of Clocky, the alarm clock that goes walkabout. Gauri, needless to say, was working on her own.

Actually what I suspect happens in companies is that they just ignore the user entirely. This is partly because technical products are built (and much of them designed) by programmers and engineers. I hate to generalize, but these people thrive on complexity, not on usability. For them creating and mastering the opaque is an achievement, not a symptom of failure.

What usually happens is that there are two sides to product development: the people in the company who think it’s a good idea and the people who have to build it. But in my limited experience there’s no one in between who speaks both languages, and, most importantly, can see what the customer might expect and want.

This is the hardest bit: it’s called usability and it seems to be the last thing people think about. If you’ve ever grappled with an alarm clock, to continue Seth’s example, you’ll know what I mean.

My favorite is the alarm clock that makes a beep every time you press a button: not so useful if you’re trying to quietly set the alarm but not wake your loved one. One clock I have, despite being sophisticated enough to tell me the temperature, the time in Lima and how many thous in a furlong, even makes a beep when I hit the backlight button. And no, it can’t be switched off without a PhD in molecular biophysics.

I wish I could say that this is confined to alarm clocks, but it’s not. Nearly every device or program is dumb in its own way. But there are bright spots. One of the things I love about Web 2.0 is that the people designing the tools really seem to understand usability.

Of course, given the fact that Web 2.0 is one big feedback loop, where new versions pop up like mushroom after rain, it’s inevitable. But the result is websites that are easy to navigate and to figure out.

Apple, of course, figured this out long ago, But everyone else seems to be having problems understanding it. I tried out a website the other day which was supposed to help me find the best form of transportation between two places. The search engine was not smart enough to know a building’s earlier name, or even to recommend alternatives if I got the name slightly wrong.

The internal calculator was not smart enough to get the distances right (one walk I was asked to make between bus-stops would have taken me into the sea and halfway to the next country); neither was it smart enough to realize that was an error. All should have been spotted by any usability tests. All undermine the whole point of the website, which is to make it easy to figure out a way to get from A to B.

I won’t bore you with more examples: You are users, and you come across this stuff all the time. What worries me more is that we’re not listened to, at least in a way in that makes sense.

I was sitting in a seminar the other day listening to an employee of a global cellphone operator talking about she and her colleagues have been canvassing opinions about how consumers use cellphones. This is good, and what should be done, but I was surprised by how she went about it: Getting users together and asking them to make collages about how they use technology.

Frankly, I don’t think making collages is the right way to go about things. We need to get out on the streets, into the offices, bars and clubs, into the villages and factories, and observe how people actually use technology. Don’t expect people to fill in forms or do collages for you: Follow them around. Spy on them. I do.

One of the side-effects of the cellphone revolution is that it’s taken technology out of the usual places (office, den) and into every other room in the house (texting in the bath, watching mobile TV in bed) and beyond, into the bus stops, the subways, the village gazebo. Technology is now a seamless part of our lives. Researchers need to get out more.

The sad truth is that we’ve moved on and the geeks need to catch up. Because, lame as the alarm clock that beeps all the time and doesn’t know it’s the weekend is, nearly all our devices are no better: They’re too smart in the sense of feature density and too stupid in the interface that lets us use those features.

So, companies: Hire a usability consultant to tell you about your products and how they might be better. Or just try your own products: sleep in on a weekend or let your spouse try to find the alarm light button in the middle of the night and see how you like being woken up.

Then rub your eyes, get out of bed and head for the design table.

Seth’s Blog: Alarm clocks