Drivers Dangerously Losing Their Minds On How To Handle `Smart' Cars

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We’ve all grown-up with the understanding that when you move the steering wheel of a car it will cause the car to turn this way or that way, based on how you opted to steer. Likewise, we take at face value that when you push down on the gas pedal it will make the car accelerate. Equally assumed is the notion that if you jam your foot onto the brakes the car will seek to stop.

This is Driving 101, for which even novice teenage drivers are able to quickly grasp how to access and use the everyday standard driving controls of a conventional car.

There are approximately 225 million licensed drivers in the United States alone, and all of them have come to accept and assume that the driving controls are essentially the same on every car they happen to drive. I’d bet that the car you own works in the same simple manner, and a friend’s car likely does too, and if you rent a car there is almost no “learning curve” about driving the rented vehicle.

Humans are able to interchangeably operate just about any conventional car, doing so without having to read an owner’s manual or get a 15-minute on-the-spot training course.

Sure, you might need a few moments to adjust the mirrors and figure out how to play music on the car radio. You might fumble to discover the seat adjustment knobs or have a difficult time initially with the windshield wipers or how to open the trunk. None of those facets are particularly germane to the driving task and presumably, you can merely hop into the driver’s seat, start the engine, and drive off the lot of a rental car agency in no time flat.

The latest and emerging souped-up driving controls for cars are changing that unspoken, always assumed, and long-tested and proven belief that the controls are the controls.

With the advent of Level 3 semi-autonomous cars, known for having Advanced Driving Assistance Systems (ADAS), you can toss out the window what you thought you knew about driving a car, at least with respect to what you and the automation are co-sharing.

Whereas to-date the ADAS pretty much left you in the driver’s seat and was quietly assisting in a manner that was generally subtle and rare, now it is going to be sitting right next to you, taking on more of the driving task and messing with your mind.

Consider Your Theory Of Mind About The Car

Whether you realize it or not, you have in your mind a so-called “Theory of Mind” about your car.

Theory of Mind is a phrase commonly used to refer to the aspect of how you perceive that other people or things work in terms of what is in their minds. When I play rock-paper-scissors with my kids, I tend to know what is in their minds as to what they will show or roll next, having played the game with them seemingly endlessly. Over time, I figure out what they may be thinking, such as if they’ve done three scissors in a row, they're bound to go with rock next.

Though your car doesn’t have a mind per se, it does do various mechanical and electronic operations that give it a kind of behavior for which you could stretch the word “mind” and say that the car is being somewhat mindful. I am decidedly not saying the car is intelligent or exhibits anything equating to human intelligence. The car is operating with extremely limited behaviors and yet it is important that you, the human driver, be familiar with what the car will do and when it will take its own actions.

One of my favorite examples involves ABS (Anti-Lock Brake System) that most contemporary cars now have included as standard on the vehicle. The ABS is supposed to come to your rescue as a driver and aid in slowing or stopping the car when you need to brake rapidly.

Most people are accustomed to pumping their brakes when they get onto an icy road if they are losing traction with the roadway surface, but that’s not the recommended approach when you have ABS. The ABS has speed sensors that are mounted onto the wheels and will automatically pulse the brakes for you when it detects skidding activity and so you are able to merely push persistently on the brake pedal and have no need to do a pumping action yourself.

Here are some key illuminated points using the ABS as an example about Theory of Mind:

• Human drivers tend to not understand how the ABS works and thus are often clueless about what to do or not do as it relates to their ABS capability in the car.

• Even for those human drivers that might comprehend the nature of ABS, once they find themselves in a high-pressure situation their reactive emotion can overpower whatever logical understanding they have, and they tend to react unthinkingly.

• Legally, cars built after the year 2013 are supposed to have ABS, as mandated by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), and so you presumably would know right away whether the car you are driving has ABS or not, but this also assumes that you’ve been astute enough to discover the year of the car’s making and then put two-plus-two together to realize there is or is not ABS (depending upon the year of the car).

Okay, so we have a situation involving quite rudimentary automation, the ABS, and for which human drivers often don’t know what it does, aren’t sure of when it will come to play, don’t understand how they should react to it reacting, and might anyway in a panic ignore or forget about the ABS, along with not being sure if the ABS feature is actually on the car they are driving.

It seems obvious that this could be a problem, given that the human driver is supposed to be responsible for the ship, or the car, and yet the captain that’s running things doesn’t fully realize what a feature does and nor how it and they as a driver are co-sharing a vital piece of the driving task.

Fortunately, in the case of ABS, we can all get along without knowing the ABS and just continue driving our cars due to the rather subtle and infrequent need to invoke the ABS. Thus, though there is a sizable Theory of Mind gap, in day-to-day driving the gap doesn’t emerge as a disorder and doesn’t impact the usual driving activities.

That’s not going to be the case with the ADAS that’s emerging with Level 3 semi-autonomous cars.

Advanced Automation And Your Blind Spot

With the emergence of more sophisticated automation and ADAS, a Level 3 semi-autonomous car is gradually going to be chockful with lots of potentially handy driving assistants, as though you have a bunch of added hands to aid in driving a car.

There is no single standard that states exactly what an ADAS package consists of, and so you need to somehow become aware of what a car with ADAS has on it.

You might have a collision warning system that lets you know if you are about to hit another car. You might have a lane departure warning system that beeps at you when you wander out of your lane. You might have a wrong-way driving warning system. And so on.

Not only do you need to go out of your way to know what’s available on the car that you happen to be driving, but you also need to understand a Theory of Mind about what each of those ADAS features does, and what you need to do about each of those features.

To date, most of these ADAS features are warnings that try to alert you, the driver, about some untoward situation that is brewing. It is then up to you to decide whether the warning is bona fide, and you also need to determine what driving action to take due to being forewarned by the warning system.

We are now entering into a time when the ADAS feature will begin to make decisions on your behalf and will then proactively take over the driving task to help you out.

In a manner of speaking, you could say that the ABS was similar to this notion since the ABS typically pulses the brakes on your behalf, which maybe you know is happening or not, but anyway it is taking an overt driving action, regardless of your awareness about the matter. This is usually fine and you blissfully are simply happy that something good seems to happen, as magically performed by the ABS.

Will this be true though as the ADAS becomes more at the forefront of the driving task?

Let’s explore the role of the emerging ADAS features for blind spot aspects.

We’ve all had moments of failing to see a car or a bicyclist in our blind spots and nearly run into those innocent souls. In spite of our overall realization that we should always be checking our blind spots when making a driving maneuver, it is commonplace to forget to do so. Or, maybe you checked the blind spot a split second ago, and by the time you perform a lane-changing maneuver, the once clear blind spot is now occupied, but you might not realize it since you are still under the (false) impression that your blind spot is empty.

Here’s a question for you, which I’ll make as multiple choice. For the state-of-the-art ADAS blind spot feature, what does it do:

a. Alerts if there is something in the blind spot when you are about to maneuver

b. Begins with a mild alert like a soft tone and then escalates to flashing at you and loud beeping

c. Will apply added force to the steering wheel to make it harder for you to continue your maneuver

d. Will prevent the underway maneuver by steering as needed regardless of your steering

The answer is that it could be any of those choices.

Yes, the choices include not merely a warning action such as tones, beeps, or flashing indicators, but also now are beginning to include more direct driving actions by the automation.

This includes making the steering wheel harder to turn, which hopefully then gets the human driver to realize somethings is afoot and will not, therefore, continue to steer toward the objects in the blind spot.

The more intrusive action is if the blind spot ADAS feature decides to not merely warn you, and instead does a real-time takeover of the driving action itself. In this case, the blind spot detector becomes an actual co-driver of the car. Pretend that you had another person in the car that was also at the driving controls. You and that other person are co-driving or co-sharing the driving task, except in this case it is a bare-bones piece of automation.

Recall my earlier points about the Theory of Mind and ABS, let’s recast those points in a larger scope manner:

• Human drivers tend to not understand how the advanced ADAS features work and thus are often clueless about what to do or not do as it relates to the advanced ADAS capability in a car.

• Even for those human drivers that might comprehend the nature of their advanced ADAS features, once they find themselves in a high-pressure situation their reactive emotion can overpower whatever logical understanding they have, and they tend to react unthinkingly.

• You have no particular way to immediately know what advanced ADAS features are included in a car, you have no immediate way to realize what those features will do, and those features can vary from one brand of car to the next, and even differ on any given car if the features are able to be turned on-or-off (plus, many allow parameter settings as to sensitivity levels, etc.)

Conclusion

The world is changing, especially the driving world.

You cannot continue to assume that the steering steers as you’ve always experienced it, and nor that the brakes and the accelerator will respond as they have in the past. You’ll now have an on-board co-driver of sorts, advanced ADAS, for which you’ll need to come up-to-speed about the idiosyncratic aspects of those features.

Presumably, when you buy a car, you’ll have to spend the needed time to learn about the advanced ADAS, though we’ll have to wait and see whether people will really do so, whereas they might just “wing it” and try out the features as they begin driving the car around town. The same notion applies to renting a car, namely that maybe the rental agency will offer to show you the advanced ADAS, but you might be rushed and won’t spend the time to learn it, or you might assume that all ADAS are the same and thus skip the added training.

We also don’t yet really know how people will deal with the proactive ADAS driving aspects and whether they might fight with the automation in moments of dire straits. If you don’t have a proper Theory of Mind about why the car is trying to turn you away from your desired driving action, you might not acquiesce and instead fight to make the turn as you see fit.

If you ever wondered why some of the automakers and tech firms are focusing more so on Level 4 and Level 5, which involves fully autonomous cars that have no human driving and no co-shared driving involved, you now know why.

Some believe that there should be just one driver of a car, either a human driver as unaided by a co-driving piece of automation, or an AI-run driving system. When you try to put two drivers into the same driving seat, it is bound to create troubles.

Those troubles are exacerbated when the human driver has an inadequate Theory of Mind about their co-driving automation buddy. The mental muscle memory that humans have about driving conventional cars is going to make for predicaments when they deal with the variability of advanced ADAS.

Like the old story about the frog that doesn’t realize it is inside a boiling pot of water that is gradually being brought to a burning boil, human drivers are potentially heading down that same path with the gradual introduction of advances in ADAS. We need to all be aware that the pot is boiling and we’re all in it together.

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Getty

We’ve all grown-up with the understanding that when you move the steering wheel of a car it will cause the car to turn this way or that way, based on how you opted to steer. Likewise, we take at face value that when you push down on the gas pedal it will make the car accelerate. Equally assumed is the notion that if you jam your foot onto the brakes the car will seek to stop.

This is Driving 101, for which even novice teenage drivers are able to quickly grasp how to access and use the everyday standard driving controls of a conventional car.

There are approximately 225 million licensed drivers in the United States alone, and all of them have come to accept and assume that the driving controls are essentially the same on every car they happen to drive. I’d bet that the car you own works in the same simple manner, and a friend’s car likely does too, and if you rent a car there is almost no “learning curve” about driving the rented vehicle.

Humans are able to interchangeably operate just about any conventional car, doing so without having to read an owner’s manual or get a 15-minute on-the-spot training course.

Sure, you might need a few moments to adjust the mirrors and figure out how to play music on the car radio. You might fumble to discover the seat adjustment knobs or have a difficult time initially with the windshield wipers or how to open the trunk. None of those facets are particularly germane to the driving task and presumably, you can merely hop into the driver’s seat, start the engine, and drive off the lot of a rental car agency in no time flat.

The latest and emerging souped-up driving controls for cars are changing that unspoken, always assumed, and long-tested and proven belief that the controls are the controls.

With the advent of Level 3 semi-autonomous cars, known for having Advanced Driving Assistance Systems (ADAS), you can toss out the window what you thought you knew about driving a car, at least with respect to what you and the automation are co-sharing.

Whereas to-date the ADAS pretty much left you in the driver’s seat and was quietly assisting in a manner that was generally subtle and rare, now it is going to be sitting right next to you, taking on more of the driving task and messing with your mind.

Consider Your Theory Of Mind About The Car

Whether you realize it or not, you have in your mind a so-called “Theory of Mind” about your car.

Theory of Mind is a phrase commonly used to refer to the aspect of how you perceive that other people or things work in terms of what is in their minds. When I play rock-paper-scissors with my kids, I tend to know what is in their minds as to what they will show or roll next, having played the game with them seemingly endlessly. Over time, I figure out what they may be thinking, such as if they’ve done three scissors in a row, they're bound to go with rock next.

Though your car doesn’t have a mind per se, it does do various mechanical and electronic operations that give it a kind of behavior for which you could stretch the word “mind” and say that the car is being somewhat mindful. I am decidedly not saying the car is intelligent or exhibits anything equating to human intelligence. The car is operating with extremely limited behaviors and yet it is important that you, the human driver, be familiar with what the car will do and when it will take its own actions.

One of my favorite examples involves ABS (Anti-Lock Brake System) that most contemporary cars now have included as standard on the vehicle. The ABS is supposed to come to your rescue as a driver and aid in slowing or stopping the car when you need to brake rapidly.

Most people are accustomed to pumping their brakes when they get onto an icy road if they are losing traction with the roadway surface, but that’s not the recommended approach when you have ABS. The ABS has speed sensors that are mounted onto the wheels and will automatically pulse the brakes for you when it detects skidding activity and so you are able to merely push persistently on the brake pedal and have no need to do a pumping action yourself.

Here are some key illuminated points using the ABS as an example about Theory of Mind:

• Human drivers tend to not understand how the ABS works and thus are often clueless about what to do or not do as it relates to their ABS capability in the car.

• Even for those human drivers that might comprehend the nature of ABS, once they find themselves in a high-pressure situation their reactive emotion can overpower whatever logical understanding they have, and they tend to react unthinkingly.

• Legally, cars built after the year 2013 are supposed to have ABS, as mandated by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), and so you presumably would know right away whether the car you are driving has ABS or not, but this also assumes that you’ve been astute enough to discover the year of the car’s making and then put two-plus-two together to realize there is or is not ABS (depending upon the year of the car).

Okay, so we have a situation involving quite rudimentary automation, the ABS, and for which human drivers often don’t know what it does, aren’t sure of when it will come to play, don’t understand how they should react to it reacting, and might anyway in a panic ignore or forget about the ABS, along with not being sure if the ABS feature is actually on the car they are driving.

It seems obvious that this could be a problem, given that the human driver is supposed to be responsible for the ship, or the car, and yet the captain that’s running things doesn’t fully realize what a feature does and nor how it and they as a driver are co-sharing a vital piece of the driving task.

Fortunately, in the case of ABS, we can all get along without knowing the ABS and just continue driving our cars due to the rather subtle and infrequent need to invoke the ABS. Thus, though there is a sizable Theory of Mind gap, in day-to-day driving the gap doesn’t emerge as a disorder and doesn’t impact the usual driving activities.

That’s not going to be the case with the ADAS that’s emerging with Level 3 semi-autonomous cars.

Advanced Automation And Your Blind Spot

With the emergence of more sophisticated automation and ADAS, a Level 3 semi-autonomous car is gradually going to be chockful with lots of potentially handy driving assistants, as though you have a bunch of added hands to aid in driving a car.

There is no single standard that states exactly what an ADAS package consists of, and so you need to somehow become aware of what a car with ADAS has on it.

You might have a collision warning system that lets you know if you are about to hit another car. You might have a lane departure warning system that beeps at you when you wander out of your lane. You might have a wrong-way driving warning system. And so on.

Not only do you need to go out of your way to know what’s available on the car that you happen to be driving, but you also need to understand a Theory of Mind about what each of those ADAS features does, and what you need to do about each of those features.

To date, most of these ADAS features are warnings that try to alert you, the driver, about some untoward situation that is brewing. It is then up to you to decide whether the warning is bona fide, and you also need to determine what driving action to take due to being forewarned by the warning system.

We are now entering into a time when the ADAS feature will begin to make decisions on your behalf and will then proactively take over the driving task to help you out.

In a manner of speaking, you could say that the ABS was similar to this notion since the ABS typically pulses the brakes on your behalf, which maybe you know is happening or not, but anyway it is taking an overt driving action, regardless of your awareness about the matter. This is usually fine and you blissfully are simply happy that something good seems to happen, as magically performed by the ABS.

Will this be true though as the ADAS becomes more at the forefront of the driving task?

Let’s explore the role of the emerging ADAS features for blind spot aspects.

We’ve all had moments of failing to see a car or a bicyclist in our blind spots and nearly run into those innocent souls. In spite of our overall realization that we should always be checking our blind spots when making a driving maneuver, it is commonplace to forget to do so. Or, maybe you checked the blind spot a split second ago, and by the time you perform a lane-changing maneuver, the once clear blind spot is now occupied, but you might not realize it since you are still under the (false) impression that your blind spot is empty.

Here’s a question for you, which I’ll make as multiple choice. For the state-of-the-art ADAS blind spot feature, what does it do:

a. Alerts if there is something in the blind spot when you are about to maneuver

b. Begins with a mild alert like a soft tone and then escalates to flashing at you and loud beeping

c. Will apply added force to the steering wheel to make it harder for you to continue your maneuver

d. Will prevent the underway maneuver by steering as needed regardless of your steering

The answer is that it could be any of those choices.

Yes, the choices include not merely a warning action such as tones, beeps, or flashing indicators, but also now are beginning to include more direct driving actions by the automation.

This includes making the steering wheel harder to turn, which hopefully then gets the human driver to realize somethings is afoot and will not, therefore, continue to steer toward the objects in the blind spot.

The more intrusive action is if the blind spot ADAS feature decides to not merely warn you, and instead does a real-time takeover of the driving action itself. In this case, the blind spot detector becomes an actual co-driver of the car. Pretend that you had another person in the car that was also at the driving controls. You and that other person are co-driving or co-sharing the driving task, except in this case it is a bare-bones piece of automation.

Recall my earlier points about the Theory of Mind and ABS, let’s recast those points in a larger scope manner:

• Human drivers tend to not understand how the advanced ADAS features work and thus are often clueless about what to do or not do as it relates to the advanced ADAS capability in a car.

• Even for those human drivers that might comprehend the nature of their advanced ADAS features, once they find themselves in a high-pressure situation their reactive emotion can overpower whatever logical understanding they have, and they tend to react unthinkingly.

• You have no particular way to immediately know what advanced ADAS features are included in a car, you have no immediate way to realize what those features will do, and those features can vary from one brand of car to the next, and even differ on any given car if the features are able to be turned on-or-off (plus, many allow parameter settings as to sensitivity levels, etc.)

Conclusion

The world is changing, especially the driving world.

You cannot continue to assume that the steering steers as you’ve always experienced it, and nor that the brakes and the accelerator will respond as they have in the past. You’ll now have an on-board co-driver of sorts, advanced ADAS, for which you’ll need to come up-to-speed about the idiosyncratic aspects of those features.

Presumably, when you buy a car, you’ll have to spend the needed time to learn about the advanced ADAS, though we’ll have to wait and see whether people will really do so, whereas they might just “wing it” and try out the features as they begin driving the car around town. The same notion applies to renting a car, namely that maybe the rental agency will offer to show you the advanced ADAS, but you might be rushed and won’t spend the time to learn it, or you might assume that all ADAS are the same and thus skip the added training.

We also don’t yet really know how people will deal with the proactive ADAS driving aspects and whether they might fight with the automation in moments of dire straits. If you don’t have a proper Theory of Mind about why the car is trying to turn you away from your desired driving action, you might not acquiesce and instead fight to make the turn as you see fit.

If you ever wondered why some of the automakers and tech firms are focusing more so on Level 4 and Level 5, which involves fully autonomous cars that have no human driving and no co-shared driving involved, you now know why.

Some believe that there should be just one driver of a car, either a human driver as unaided by a co-driving piece of automation, or an AI-run driving system. When you try to put two drivers into the same driving seat, it is bound to create troubles.

Those troubles are exacerbated when the human driver has an inadequate Theory of Mind about their co-driving automation buddy. The mental muscle memory that humans have about driving conventional cars is going to make for predicaments when they deal with the variability of advanced ADAS.

Like the old story about the frog that doesn’t realize it is inside a boiling pot of water that is gradually being brought to a burning boil, human drivers are potentially heading down that same path with the gradual introduction of advances in ADAS. We need to all be aware that the pot is boiling and we’re all in it together.

Dr. Lance B. Eliot is a world-renowned expert on Artificial Intelligence (AI) and especially Autonomous Vehicles (AV). As a seasoned executive and high-tech entrepreneur...