Nissan’s ProPilot Assist will be eclipsed by its ProPilot 2.0 as it shifts into Level 3 territory, though Level 3 cars introduce new considerations for drivers and our roadways.
We are entering into a murky driving era involving semi-autonomous cars , ones that are not yet proficient at true self-driving and are intended as an ADAS (Advanced Driver-Assistance System) capability only.
Don’t mistakenly confuse these Level 3 cars with the fully autonomous Level 4 and Level 5 self-driving driverless cars that are being devised and tested.
In the case of Level 3, the human driver is co-sharing the driving task with the automation of the car, yet, nonetheless, you, as the human driver remain undeniably the responsible party for the driving of the vehicle. You cannot try to hope or pretend that the automation is the driver, since it is decidedly not the true driver, and you must at all times realize that you are the accountable driver sitting at the wheel of the car.
I’ve predicted that as the ADAS automation improves, it will lull human drivers into a sense of complacency about the driving task. This is regrettable, dangerous, and playing with fire in terms of what it portends for driving on our roadways.
Right now, we all reasonably know that the everyday automation on a conventional car is too rudimentary to do much of any of the driving task, therefore we tend to keep our attention riveted toward driving the car. In a kind of irony, the more that the ADAS automation improves, it essentially fools you into falsely believing it can drive the car when the actual fact is that it cannot, and you must remain just as vigilant as ever.
Worrisome too is that the media keeps fanning the flames associated with advances in ADAS automation. Those that don’t fully grasp what is going on are apt to gush about any new features that are announced about ADAS. Yes, it is certainly handy and significant that ADAS continues to improve, yet in the same breath, it is important to point out the potential “gap” this will create between what drivers need to do and what they mistakenly will fall prey to doing.
I’d like to use the recent announcement of Nissan’s ProPILOT 2.0 as an exemplar of my points about how we all need to take a breath and calmly consider how Level 3 is going to impact our driving and the nature of what takes place on our highways and byways.
I’m not going to refer to Level 3 cars as “self-driving” since I believe this to be a misleading moniker. I would wager that most people assume that something that can “self-drive” is able to autonomously drive a car, doing so without any human intervention needed. The same qualms apply to the phrases of “driverless cars” and for “autonomous cars,” all of which suggests the AI can drive the car itself, and for which I reserve those phrases for Level 4 and Level 5 vehicles.
Level 3 cars are semi-autonomous , at best, meaning they have some autonomy-like capabilities and can aid or augment what a human driver is doing. They are not autonomous .
Also, though I am focusing in this instance on the Nissan ProPILOT 2.0, please realize that my commentary applies to all the other emerging Level 3 cars too. It’s going to be an across-the-board matter that encompasses any and all Level 3 vehicles.
Recent Announcement About Nissan ProPILOT 2.0
You likely already know that Nissan has offered the ProPILOT Assist since about 2016 and it has been around for several years now.
The ADAS capability of ProPILOT Assist includes aspects such as adaptive cruise control, along with a lane-centering feature, and several other subsystems to mildly augment the human driver. Those features when first introduced were somewhat novel and uncommon, and since then have become essentially part-and-parcel of most modern-day cars.
The newest incarnation of the ProPILOT is labeled as version 2.0.
It’s the usual leapfrog aspects of tech on cars.
An automaker comes up with something relatively new, brings it to the marketplace, others are doing the same to compete and eventually the innovation becomes the new norm. This then prompts the automakers to try and rejigger the game by coming out with even newer features, and the cycle of those capabilities ultimately becoming the norm then repeats itself over and over.
The ProPILOT 2.0 will reportedly be available in Japan initially and then eventually be made available in other markets including the United States.
One small aspect that I’d like to note.
I had welcomed that the ProPILOT Assist had purposely been named to include the word “Assist” when it was first coined by Nissan, doing so by their awareness that some of the names of ADAS systems are misleading and imply greater capability than truly provided (there is an ongoing and acrimonious debate about Tesla using the word “Autopilot”). By having added the word “Assist” to the ProPILOT name, it hopefully clued drivers that the system was only of an assisting nature.
I bring this up because so far it appears that ProPILOT 2.0 might not contain the word “Assist” and if so, it to me seems like an unfortunate dropping of a word that at least attempted to recognize the limited aspects of being semi-autonomous.
I realize you can argue that maybe people don’t pay attention to the names of things anyway, and so perhaps it is inconsequential how you name these systems, but I don’t buy into that argument and assert that the name does still make a difference .
In any case, the ProPILOT 2.0 includes upgrades to the sensory devices used for the ADAS, including 7 cameras, 5 radar units, and 12 sonar sensors, mounted around the car to try and achieve a 360-degree perspective, plus a new 3D HD (High Definition) mapping data and GPS subsystem, an eyes-on feature, and some other added capabilities.
It is being suggested and stated that these new features will allow for hands-off driving in certain circumstances.
I won’t go into the details herein about the situations that allow you to presumably go hands-off, trying to keep this piece somewhat brief, and am going to focus more so on the overall notion of allowing for and encouraging hands-off related driving.
How Eyes-On And Hands-Off Are Problematic
The media has reacted to the ProPILOT 2.0 announcement with some rather breathless claims , such as:
• “Truly hands-free auto-navigating highway driving” – this is grossly misleading, there are crucial limits to when the hands-free or hands-off driving is intended to be used
• “Eye-scanning tech makes certain the driver is paying attention to the road” – a false statement in that the eye-scanning or eyes-on can help increase the chances of the driver paying attention to the driving task but it is far from being a certainty
Allow me a moment to elaborate on why the eyes-on and hands-off proposition is quite unsettling.
With eyes-on, a car has an inward-facing camera pointed at your face and eyes, which is then used to try and detect if your head is facing toward the road and also detect if your eyes are aimed ahead too. Some systems only detect the position of your head, some detect only the position of your eyes, while most of these kinds of systems are converging toward detecting both your head position and your eyes position.
If you turn your head toward say a passenger seated next to your driver’s position, the system would detect that your head has turned away and would alert you. Likewise, if your eyes shift to look downward at the speedometer of your car, the system can usually detect that your eyes are no longer looking forward and will alert you accordingly. These systems tend to allow you to avert your gaze or shift your head momentarily, thus not instantaneously barking at you all of the time.
Some seem to think that as long as you are keeping your eyes aimed at the road ahead, this allows you to then remove your hands from the steering wheel, since presumably you are still paying attention to the driving task and it is merely the seemingly inconsequential matter that your hands aren’t on the steering wheel anymore.
Thus, by having a built-in system to try and ensure that your eyes remain riveted ahead, we are entering into this new territory of Level 3 cars that will increasingly tout that you no longer have to grasp your steering wheel.
I ask you, what will you do with your hands-off ability?
If you have the freedom to do whatever you want with your hands, it seems doubtful that you’ll keep them at-the-ready near the steering wheel. I’d bet that you would use your hands to hold that coffee cup or grab an item from the backseat of the car or help your child that’s seated next to you.
Your hands will now become adrift of the driving task, more so than ever before. And, whereas you might have kept one hand on the steering wheel, allowing the other hand to do the kinds of actions I’ve just mentioned, now you’ll be taking both hands off the wheel.
There are three key factors about your hands:
Let’s explore the three factors by considering a driving activity.
You are driving on the freeway. A car ahead of you suddenly hits its brakes. You can try to hit your brakes too, or possibly swerve your car to avoid a crash. The act of swerving your car is going to require that your hands be on the steering wheel, doing so to turn the wheel in whichever direction seems best to swerve and to the degree that you need to swerve to avoid the accident.
With eyes-on tech, I’ll pretend that you are watching the road ahead and see the car that’s suddenly braking.
Meanwhile, your hands were both entirely off the steering wheel. Your left-hand was fiddling with the seat adjustment knob, since you were trying to reposition the driver’s seat for more comfort, and your right-hand was being used to hold a sippy cup for your young child next to you.
Upon the startling realization that the car ahead is coming to a tire screeching halt, you need to take your left hand off the seat adjustment knob, move your left arm and left hand so that the hand becomes closer to the steering wheel, and then grab the steering wheel with your now available left hand. Your right hand presumably is simultaneously dropping the sippy cup, and your right arm and right hand are repositioning closer to the steering wheel, eventually allowing your right hand to now be positioned on the wheel and cooperate with your left hand.
How long does that take to happen?
I’ll be generous and say that it takes just 2-3 seconds, though you might want to consult my review of various research studies about the reaction times of human drivers and how sluggish us humans can be. At a speed of around 70 miles per hour, those 2-3 seconds means that you’ve traveled about 200 to 300 feet, perhaps nearly the length of a football field.
You might have struck that car ahead of you in the time it takes to get your hands onto the wheel.
Or, your options of swerving might no longer exist because of the delay in turning the wheel. And so on.
Thus, by having your hands-off, you are tempting fate in terms of the time it will require to get your hands back onto the wheel and in a usable posture, which is also impacted by the distance that your hands were from the wheel, along with whatever might have been in your hands that you were grasping at the time that you needed them for purposes of being on the wheel.
I don’t believe that the eyes-on gives you the ultimate freedom of being hands-off, especially not when you are driving a Level 3 car that depends upon you as the human driver to take over the driving task, something that you never actually could or should give away to start with, since you are still the responsible party driving the car.
The Human Driving Elements Being Reconsidered
With Level 3 cars, we are starting to mix-and-match the following possibilities:
• Eyes-on versus eyes-off
• Hands-on versus hands-off
• Feet-on versus feet-off
• Mind-on driving versus mind-off driving
Apparently, you can seemingly pick selections from the list and match them as you might so wish to do.
This seems highly questionable for ADAS and Level 3 driving.
I’d like to assert some rules of human driving that seem pertinent:
• The more of your sensory apparatus that are “off” the driving task, the worse it will be when you need those to urgently control the car
• Your eyes-on does not guarantee that you are fully engaged in the driving task since you mind can still be elsewhere, especially if it is dealing with your hands-off or feet-off aspects
• The shifting of your sensory apparatus to being “off” the driving task will exacerbate the likelihood of your mind going adrift too
Here’s something else that seems equally worrisome.
Will human drivers that are less capable at driving become emboldened to drive when they otherwise would not have been driving, since they now come to believe that the ADAS Level 3 is going to make-up for any of their own driving deficiencies or foibles?
Think about drunk drivers .
Consider too the nature of novice teenage drivers.
Those teenage budding drivers are statistically already in a high-risk category of driving , partially due to their inexperience at driving and also at times due to being easily distracted from the driving task. If they are driving a car that allows them the latitude of being hands-off, will this even worsen their plight and the plight of the rest of us that come near to those cars?
You could claim that the eyes-on feature might actually help reduce car accidents by those novice teenage drivers because it will be a means to presumably force them to remain focused on the road ahead. Yes, this might be partially the case, though remember that it is allowing for them to correspondingly remove their hands-off the wheel, which would seem to counter-balance or undermine the benefits of the eyes-on.
For systems designers , it is a common understanding that humans generally flow like water to whatever is the least they need to do for a given task at-hand.
The eyes-on is helpful, and we ought to also note that Level 3 cars that lack eyes-on are in a worse status than those that are arming their cars with eyes-on.
The hands-off is potentially alarming since it is taking us inch-by-inch toward becoming less engaged in the driving task, which for Level 3 is disconcerting.
I’ve repeatedly predicted that we are going to have a slew of lawsuits down-the-road about these matters.
If you get hit by a Level 3 car in which the driver had his hands off the wheel, doing so by the encouragement of the automaker or tech firm, it seems likely you and your attorney will go after the car designer for having set up what could be construed as a powder keg ready to someday explode.
For the moment, we can expect a myriad of Level 3 designs and approaches to enter into the marketplace, coming onto our roadways as part of a grand experiment, seeing how far we can stretch the human driving act toward becoming afield of actually driving the car, and yet meanwhile assuming or expecting that the human driver is supposedly driving the car.
Make sure to keep your eyes on Level 3 cars.