The Different Mentality of a Passenger vs. Driver

The testing of self-driving or autonomous vehicles (AVs) is not proceeding without serious incident.  In some cities authorities have halted real world testing as investigation of the various incidents is underway.  Automotive journalists are paying close attention and asking questions about the ‘bigger picture.’

Lorraine Sommerfeld, an automotive journalist regularly featured in the National Post newspaper identified the current dilemma for AV developers as trying to test autonomy while still relying on real humans to intervene where necessary to avoid “killing people on their way to perfection.”

In its February 2018 issue, Wired magazine featured a Guide to Self-Driving Cars (www.wired.com/story/guide-self-driving-cars/) exploring where this revolution is at developmentally.  It said we are living in a “weird in-between moment, when the robots are good but not good enough.”  The gist of this excellent piece is that, in a relatively short period of time, AVs have moved well past the first stages but remain some time away from mass deployment, if indeed that is the ultimate goal.

Continuing to refine the necessary hardware—cameras, lidar, radar, artificial intelligence, maps—and syncing the hardware with the software are ongoing, an important objective of all the real world testing. “Interactions,” “processes,” “regulations,” “insurance,”  “production plant re-jiggering” all need to be re-thought, re-engineered, re-imagined. So, … no surprise, predicting when this will happen and what the utopian or dystopian outcome will be is difficult.  Nevertheless, it concludes, as the horseless carriage prevailed over the horse, so too, in one form or another, will the self-driving car surpass the car. In conclusion theWired article plays it safe: “Like the internet, these vehicles will reflect some of our worse impulses, but also channel our best

Ms. Sommerfeld is intrigued by these incidents, especially by the extent to which they show how real world ‘drivers’ of AVs seem to have so readily embraced, as she calls it ‘passenger brain’ mode.  This, she defines, as the different way we act when we are passengers rather than drivers.  One example she gives is the way some people, who would never do so otherwise, don’t bother doing up their seatbelts in taxis.  Passenger brain mode is the way in which some people almost automatically invest their trust and confidence in a driver about whom they know very little, perhaps even nothing.

On the one hand ‘passenger brain mode’ reflects the degree to which we tend to underestimate the challenge and stressfulness of driving when we aren’t ‘in the driver’s seat.’

On the other, it begs exploring the safety enhancing possibilities of passengers who willingly and thoughtfully engage in ‘helpful passenger brain mode’ or, put another way, ‘passenger as co-pilot brain mode.’  This involves sharing the driver’s experience: focusing on the road and the driving conditions; helping with way finding, still challenging despite all the modern navigational aides; helping with situational awareness; helping with playing media, monitoring fuel usage, and ensuring travel speed is within the posted limits. We encourage our readers to think about how when they are passengers they can help their driver by being more alert to the demands of the drive and more situationally aware.

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