Google and Mercedes Benz are just a couple of the big names in autonomous driving. They seem to be driven by an assumption that might be misguided.

The recent 100km drive by the driverless S500 is quite remarkable. The car appears to expertly navigate wide open rural and tight city roads with similar agility. The car even stops for pedestrians as they approach a crosswalk. I remember Alan Alda of Scientific American Frontiers interviewing engineers from Mercedes Benz about their autonomous van — in 1994. Once at speed, the van was able to maintain speed and lane on a 2-mile replica of the autobahn. Although nearly two decades later, the S500 version represents a qualitative leap forward in capabilities.

Perhaps, autonomous driving is just hype. According to Gartner, developer of the longest-running hype cycle report, autonomous driving is about to enter the ‘peak of inflated expectations.’ The peak embodies the expectations that we — the general public and researchers alike — have for a particular concept. Maybe our hopes for these technologies are based on decades old promises from futurists or what we see in movies. Gartner expects the technology will reach the ‘plateau of productivity’ in 5-10 years. This is the point at which we will have a workable and stable version of the technology. But what will the consumer-ready version of autonomous driving look like?

Automation is an inevitable future of almost any human endeavor, but I believe that some people will actually prefer to remain connected to and integrated with their driving experience. Technology giants are throwing their intellectual weight at the automotive industry. Some believe Apple is positioning itself to rethink the in-car experience, and it has less to do with automation and more to do with information. Another such concept was Saab’s iQon infotainment system. Ignoring the typical in-car infotainment notions (radio, navigation, etc), one of the most compelling features of this system was the unprecedented access to vehicle telematics it allowed.

It not only packs the usual navigation and entertainment features, but is tied into a network of sensors in the car that measure everything from vehicle speed to inside and outside temperatures to the position of the sun.

Despite Saab’s unfortunate demise (although, as the name of its most recent platform implies, Phoenix, keep an eye out for the company’s return), other manufactures are carrying forward the idea of connecting drivers with streams of data. Chevrolet’s Corvette Stringray features a user configurable dashboard. For example, as other companies are sending tire pressure information to the dashboard, the Stingray can sense tire temperature, enabling the driver to make decisions about changes in handling dynamics. Researchers at Ford are putting other vehicle telemetry to use through haptic feedback to the driver.

I think the future of autonomous cars is semi-automonous. There will always be some drivers (or some conditions for many drivers) who want more information and more control. This is surely a reason for concern. Looking to history as a teacher, in the 1930s there was great resistance to in-car radios. Even though many of us today can’t imagine a car being sold without a radio, there is still new evidence surfacing indicating that music in the car might be dangerous. We are now verging on cars that not only play us a tune but also bombard us with data from every electromechanical system in the car.

We need to better understand the driver-vehicle relationship and create symbiotic interactions. How about a car that, when it senses the driver is on a phone call, pulls over to the side of the road? Or a car that only offers appropriate telemetry when the driver has the attentional resources to understand and act upon it? This leads us to one of the trickiest types of human-system interactions, one where the person maintains some control and the system is capable of some automation. Despite the challenge to create a safe, semi-autonomous car, I believe that not everyone is willing to give up complete control of a technology that enables freedom of mobility.

What do you think? Which functions are drivers willing to give up? What new data will drivers want access to?

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