Cars don't yet drive themselves, but the Texas A&M Transportation Institute has been chosen to be in the front seat of research funding to improve the safety of autonomous vehicles.
Alongside research experts at the University of Houston, the University of Michigan and Detroit-based Touchstone Evaluations, TTI's team will compete with four other research teams for $35 million in funding sponsored by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration through 2023.
"To be selected for this, we carefully put together a team of renowned researchers and scientists from across the country who have a unique balance of expertise, research capabilities and facilities," said Michael Manser, TTI's Human Factors Program manager and a senior researcher.
Manser said that when many people think of autonomous cars, they "think of pushing a button and then the car drives itself," but he cautioned that such technology is likely "many decades away."
"In the interim, cars will, and in some ways already do, have some of these lower levels of autonomy," he said. "This partial autonomy will keep developing over the next 20 or 30 years. It is critical that the car and driver have to understand each other to keep driving safely."
Research topics likely will include driver reaction and interaction with their autonomous vehicles and how that impacts safety, according to Ioannis Pavlidis, founder of the Computational Physiology Lab at the University of Houston.
"As automation becomes reality on a piecemeal basis, we will become 'vehicle handlers,' as we will only be driving part of the time. Being a part-time driver brings with it its own set of potential problems," Pavlidis says. "For example, how do we make sure the driver is ready when he or she is brought back into the loop?"
Manser discussed a spectrum of driver control and said many cars already have mechanisms by which the driver relinquishes full control over the vehicle, including cruise control and automated obstacle awareness. "We work to create car systems that come close to human levels of awareness, with long-term goals of cars that will be up to three times better than humans at making decisions on the road. ... That could save up to 30,000 lives a year," Manser said.
Manser said the TTI and its research partners have an overarching goal of creating vehicle systems that can help reduce human errors of judgment on the road.
The five-year NHTSA Crash Avoidance Human Factors Research project is an indefinite delivery/indefinite quantity (IDIQ) contract. "The various projects have not yet been determined, but they will generally involve human interaction with advanced vehicle safety systems including autonomous vehicles," Manser said.
TTI's team and four other research teams selected by NHTSA will compete only among themselves for the funding, an arrangement Manser likened to a basketball player who has made the team and now must earn playing time. "We could win all 35 million [dollars], or we could win none," Manser said.
Manser said that the UM team specializes in vehicle-based research, the Touchstone researchers do evaluative testing directly with automobile manufacturers and suppliers and that the University of Houston researchers often focus on driver fatigue and other physiological aspects of the work.
"As part of the TTI team, our work on this project will likely involve how drivers manage their attention when these advanced technologies are operating," says Linda Angell, president and principal scientist with Touchstone Evaluations. "As we all know, distraction has been a real concern for safety. And, with more automation in the vehicle, one of the key questions is: How do we ensure that driver attention is properly supported and safeguarded?"
TTI officials anticipate that initial projects may be awarded by the NHTSA before Sept. 1, with future projects funded throughout the duration of the five-year contract.
"These NHTSA projects will certainly help us have a better understanding of the challenges we face as we see increased levels of vehicle automation," said John Sullivan of Michigan's Transportation Research Institute. "Through this research funding, NHTSA is also interested in determining just what benefits automation will bring, especially as it concerns safety."