A wide screen depicting a highway with five cars and office buildings running alongside the road to the right.

Understanding attitudes to driverless cars

“Accidents involving semi-autonomous vehicles have received a lot of media attention, even though they don’t happen very frequently.”

As self-driving cars start to be less ‘Silicon Valley’ and more ‘coming to a street near you’, the way that people perceive and interact with them is of increasing importance. Our very human responses, attitudes, biases and approach to blame if things go wrong are a key part of understanding how we will adopt and assimilate autonomous vehicles into society. Putting these under the microscope is Dr Qiyuan Zhang, Research Associate in Human Factors at the School of Psychology at Cardiff University, who is one of the human factors research team called HuFEx(Human Factors Excellence), which specialises in research on human-machine interactions. It is also a part of IROHMS (Centre for Artificial Intelligence, Robotics and Human/Machine Systems) – a multi-disciplinary research centre, also based in Cardiff, that is applying psychology, engineering and computer science to human-centred technologies. 

“There’s a lot of human factors research on autonomous vehicles already, because the industry is booming, but it’s very rare to see research on people’s reactions to accidents involving autonomous vehicles,” explains Dr Zhang. “So, who is to blame in an autonomous vehicle accident? Manufacturer or programmer of the algorithm? And what would that mean in the legal sense? How do we divide the liability, and should there be a criminal case?” This is, of course, incredibly important, as introducing completely new technologies of any kind requires a usage ‘baseline’ from which to judge an improvement in either safety or efficiency. An understanding, if you will, of any potential actions and outcomes around its place in society and how these might affect legislation involving them. “There are regulations in some countries prescribing that public perception and expectation needs to be consulted. For example, if a conventional car hit a pedestrian, even if the pedestrian is illegally crossing the road, you still need to establish if the breaking distance is sufficient to stop the car completely–but how do we establish what is a reasonable braking distance?” asks Dr Zhang. The answer is that there should be human factors research conducted to understand public expectations and this applies to autonomous vehicles too. This is one of the objectives of Dr Zhang’s multinational research team, which is led by Professor Phil Morgan from the UK and Dr Tatsuhiko Inatani from Japan.

A person sits in a simulator unit in a darkened room, holding a steering wheel. In front of them is a huge, curved screen upon which a driving scene is projected.
Participants in the research with have their physiological responses monitored, as well as having their attitudes to different scenarios captured.

The data gathering itself takes two forms; participants are given written descriptions involving a driverless car and are asked to report their beliefs and observations about an accident. The second approach will involve the use of a driving simulator, designed to a bespoke specification for the university. Simulation specialists, ST Engineering Antycip were brought in to install the unit in a dedicated space called ‘The IROHMS Simulation Lab’. A complex combination of three Canon XEED 500ST projectors is custom rigged from the ceiling to project the simulation onto a bespoke cylindrical screen surface, using ST Engineering Antycip’s VIOSO VR & Simulation software. The simulator has been designed to be scalable and can have new capabilities added to it as required over the course of the research.

The simulator will present driving scenarios, but critically, with the help of some plug-in hardware, it will measure responses, such as situational awareness and the time it takes for the participant to regain control over the vehicle when it leaves autonomous mode. Dr Zhang and the team also use physiological instruments like eye trackers to measure eye movements and pupil dilation. “These could be used to measure the focus of attention and situation awareness of the participant,” he explains. “We can also measure things like head movement and heart rate. Ideally, we would use a combination of all of those measures in order to establish the psychological state of the participants.” Using the simulator means that new elements can be added into the scenarios. “For example, we can add that the pedestrian was running across the street. Or looking at their cell phone. We can also manipulate such things as the speed and traffic density.” 

At present, this research is part of a multi-national collaboration between the UK (led by Cardiff University) and Japan, (led by Kyoto University) and is funded through the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council and Japan’s Science and Technology agency. However, it is envisioned that the driving simulator will be used for various projects in the future. “Because there’s very limited research in this field, there are a lot of things we can do,” says Dr Zhang. And continued research of this nature and calibre means that we all benefit when autonomous vehicles finally become a familiar site on our roads. 

Watch the team from ST Engineering Antycip and Visual Solutions install the simulator.

Written by Colin Boyle