October 20, 2022

Letting Vehicles Drive Themselves & The Safety Case for Googly Eyes

One Viewpoint Vancouver commenter made a telling remark on the shift to autonomous driving trucks on highways to keep shipping going during a global shortage of long haul truck drivers.  He suggested that this would be as safe for pedestrians and cyclists as walking on railway tracks.

But it appears that analogy may not be far off if electric cars with semi-autonomous driving capabilities are also factored in.

As David Shepardson in Reuters writes owners of vehicles with self driving features have surprisingly been using them on the road and letting the vehicle completely self drive while humans behind the steering wheel did other tasks or relaxed.

A study undertaken by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) found that in a survey of 600 users that 53 percent of General Motors  Super Cruise owners, 42 percent of Tesla Autopilot and 12 percent of ProPILOT Assist users were “comfortable treating their vehicles as fully self-driving”.  Human drivers then spent their time eating or texting.

While all three manufacturers insist that their driving software was not to be used independently, vehicle drivers that are putting their vehicles in auto drive mode are unaware of the current limits of the technology, which is a worry to the IIHS.

To date the National Highways Transportation Safety Association has 37 investigations in 18 Tesla deaths where autopilot was in use.

But as Andrew Liszewski writes in Gizmodo, there is a simple hack that can minimize the risk of self-driving vehicles crashing into pedestrians and cyclists with an intermediate technology-googly eyes.

Large roving eyes on the front of a vehicle that show where and what the vehicle is detecting can be a confirmation of “eye contact” for a pedestrian. This has been an issue with autonomously driven vehicles, that there is no indication that the many cameras or sensors on the vehicle has perceived a person on the street.

Using 18 participants aged from 18 to 49 years, researchers found that men made more challenging decisions of when to cross the road in front of an autonomous vehicle, but all participants felt safer when the eyes on the vehicle paid attention to them.

The scenarios were filmed with a 360-degree camera, and then 18 subjects—nine women and nine men aged 18 to 49 years—took over the role of the pedestrian through a virtual reality headset where they randomly played through the scenarios multiple times and had just three seconds to assess the situation and decide if they were going to attempt to cross the road in front of the approaching golf cart.

The researchers were surprised to find that male participants tended to make more dangerous decisions about crossing the road, choosing to cross when the cart made no indication it was going to stop, while female participants erred on the side of caution, often choosing not to cross when the cart was actually coming to a stop.

However, in both instances, the participants noted that when the vehicle had eyes that were looking away, crossing felt less safe, but when the eyes appeared to be paying attention to them, crossing felt safer. In this small study the researchers posit that safe crossings increased by 68 percent with a vehicle with googly eyes.


You can see how the experiment worked in the accompanying video.


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  1. Despite AV’s being no better for the environment than diesel trucks, they would reduce road deaths by damn near 99.9%. That is the one thing they have going for them. It’s quite a huge thing, but I don’t think it’s enough to overcome the political, technological, and existential hurdles to implement. We’ve repeatedly proven we don’t care about the death and suffering caused by our driving – so long as we don’t feel inconvenienced. In light of that, AV’s are too much work and too much secession of perceived control for too little benefit.

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