New study: ‘People are downright scared of robot cars’

Intel identifies seven issues for autonomous passengers.

Intel is placing huge bets on autonomous driving technology, not only though things like its recent $15.3-billion acquisition of Mobileye and projects with BMW, FCA and Delphi, but development of its own silicon. As we all know the tech presents some formidable challenges, and Intel recently released a study detailing how people feel about it.

According to Jack Weast, senior principal engineer and the chief systems architect of Intel's Autonomous Driving Group, "People are downright scared of robot cars." At least they are until they gain familiarity with what autonomous vehicles can do. The Intel Trust Interaction Study identified seven areas of concern:

1. Human vs. machine judgment. While respondents thought the self-driving vehicle would perform better overall, there's concern about things like cars cutting in and how the autonomous car will react. At least the robot won't make obscene hand gestures at the offender.

2. Personalized space vs. lack of assistance. The good: free time because there's no driving involved. The bad: there's no driver to provide driving advice to. After all with a lot of time on your hands, backseat driving is all the more appealing.

3. Awareness vs. too much information. The classic damned-if-you-do/don't. People want information, but perhaps the vehicle might over-communicate, which they would find annoying. Chances are, a mute button wouldn't be particularly difficult to implement given everything else the system is doing.

4. Giving up vs. gaining new control. If you're sitting in the back seat and see the steering wheel turning itself, you may feel creeped out. Presumably, fully autonomous vehicles will forgo steering wheels to eliminate the perception of being driven by a ghost. However, people feel good about being able to use a phone to summon a car that will whisk them away.

5. How it works vs. proof. People want to understand how the tech works and what it can do. But seriously: does an average motorist really understand how their car works right now?

6. Tell me vs. listen to me. The respondents liked the fact that the car communicates in a human voice. But they also wonder whether they might be able to talk to the car, as in providing tips and suggestions. Which brings the aforementioned backseat driving into mind.

7. Rule-following machines vs. human rule interpretation. Some participants admitted that they don't always follow the rules, like speeding on empty roads or not always stopping when required (presumably the classic stop-sign roll-through). Robot cars will undoubtedly have rule-adhering algorithms.

The Intel study was conducted with people with no previous experience with autonomous vehicles and included a test ride in one. According to Weast, "Every single participant experienced a huge leap in their confidence level after their journey."

Or, as futurist Arthur C. Clarke put it, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." But once you see how it's done, it makes all the more sense.

Gary S. Vasilash is editor-in-chief of Automotive Design & Production , co-host of Autoline After Hours and a juror for the North American Car and Truck of the Year awards.

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