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CES: Society not ready for full autonomy: Nissan

My shout: Nissan is developing new technologies to address problems raised by bringing to market self-driving and electric vehicles such as the Canto synthesised sound system.

Nissan points to social, regulatory hurdles blocking fully self-driving cars

12 Jan 2018


THE automotive industry might be only a couple of years away from having fully autonomous vehicles ready for the road, but a senior Nissan executive has pointed to social, legal and ethical problems that must be overcome before driverless cars reach widespread production.

Speaking in Las Vegas at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) this week, Silicon Valley-based Nissan Research Centre principal researcher of human centred systems Melissa Cefkin – who is trained as an anthropologist – told GoAuto that the complex problem of working out legislation for self-driving vehicles will push back their mass-market adoption.

“It’s certainly a factor in how everything will go,” Dr Cefkin said. “I think that part of the regulation question is also just … the variability of different regulatory statutes – when and where, whose jurisdiction – getting those in line.

“I would say that, having full autonomous capability in complex situations – settings like in cities without the protected zones of fully mapped areas – I’m perhaps a little more conservative than you in just about how long it will be.

“I think learning from the different social environments will find that there is a lot of ongoing adaptation as we have autonomous vehicles that scale, because if you think about what we see today, we have … (only) two or three in (specialised) environments.

“Once we scale up and so many cars are autonomous, that will also introduce new patterns and it will be an ongoing evolution to just see how we get them all to work right.

“I’m confident we can do it, but I’m not sure it’s tomorrow.”

In ethical terms, Dr Cefkin said it may be easier to position where self-driving cars will be in our lives given a changeover in transportation technology is something that happened before – with the horse and automobile.

“I think that the ethical questions are important, they’re in all that we do – we’re dealing with the public, we’re dealing with customers, we’re dealing with people’s lives and we’re dealing in social environments that have very evolved demographics and new ways of living,” she said.

“So I think that … they are always under the seam, but these are not all new questions about what the ethics of a technology development should be, and there are schools of thought and there are histories … to consider to how to design the object that plays into those arenas.

“So, yes, they are there, but there is some precedent to work through.”

Dr Cefkin pointed out a difficulty with autonomous technology is the different driving conditions and attitude of drivers in varying countries such as the US and India. However, she said Nissan would develop a holistic solution to the problem, instead of producing market-specific self-driving cars.

“Realistically, as we already see that vehicles are being developed to operate in some specialised operational zones … we could, I believe, technically, choose to try a Chinese environment or others that might have different patterns of interaction from what we’re used to and our cars would be able to learn how to drive in that setting,” she said.

“However, that might not be the ultimate future that we want on the roads, and so we’re going to have to continue to develop where and how they can drive, but also what the regulated and appropriate means of driving will be.

“Our interest is not to judge what way is right or wrong, or what works best, but to think about what it would mean to develop autonomous systems that are capable of moving in different places around the world,” she said.

“Nissan is a mass-consumer car company, we are committed to our markets around the world, we have plans to deploy our autonomous vehicles increasingly over time in a global fashion.

“So how we design the system today will need to account for, at least expect to encounter very different kinds of settings.”

Another problem Dr Cefkin is looking to address is how the self-driving car can convey information to pedestrians or the outside world, much like a driver would stop and wave a pedestrian across the road to show they are giving way.

“The external HMI (human machine interface) that we envisioned would be derived primarily out of the vehicle intelligence system, all the sensors and the data that the vehicle already has, because what we want the external HMI to do is to express things about the vehicle itself,” she said.

“For example, if the vehicle could have a signal that says ‘I’m waiting’ or ‘I’m about to go’ or ‘it’s not my turn’, those are all things that the vehicle would know from its own systems, whether that data is coming from connected services or from the intelligence and sensors on board.

“As of now, we’re conceptualising more HMI that is maybe not as interactive … even though we call it HMI, but they provide messages (to the outside world).”

Nissan presented an example of this at last year’s Tokyo motor show in the form of its Canto technology that will make different sounds to signal acceleration, slowing down or reversing. A similar technology has also been available in Nissan’s Leaf electric vehicle since its debut in 2010.

Similarly, lights or signs on the outside of a vehicle could also telegraph its intended purpose to pedestrians and other vehicles.

Dr Cefkin said Nissan would continue to study the evolving relationship between people and vehicles as the industry shifts towards autonomy.

“What we’re especially interested in is how having these robot cars driving around will affect people’s everyday lives, what their sense of experience will be in the everyday,” she said.

“The way that we do this is to learn about how people move about and interact in today’s world before we have too much autonomy.

“And from this we are trying to extract some insight as to what the nature of interaction is on roadways so that we can plan for what interactions with the ‘robo-vehicles’, with autonomous vehicles, will be in the future.”

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