Cameras mounted inside the university's modified Nissan Versa. Image: The University of Michigan's Transportation Research Institute

While today's autonomous vehicles can to adapt to far more situations than even just a couple of years ago, it’s dealing with humans that remains the biggest problem—having cars adapt to humans, and us adapt to them.

That’s why Dr. Anuj K. Pradhan, an assistant research scientist at the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute, believes it’s all the more important to study human behavior—what happens when a person is texting while a self-driving car needs him or her to retake control, for example, or what happens if that person falls asleep behind a self-driving wheel—in a simulator before we have autonomous vehicles on the road. To that end, Dr. Pradhan and the UMTRI team are now expanding the group’s existing research to study exactly how humans behave in a self-driving car and how closely the cars may have to watch over us in order to ensure we’re ready to take the wheel when the need arises.

According to Dr. Pradhan, while the driving experience is virtual, the results they’re able to get are close to reality. “There’s some limitation to what kind of graphics can be displayed,” he explained, “but in terms of driver behavior their reactions get very real very quickly. When we have people come sit in the simulator—obviously it’s in a room, it’s in a lab, but the first thing they do is put on their seatbelt. Their eye movements, their visual scanning patterns, are very highly correlated to how they scan in real life.”

To track those movements, the UMTRI researchers have made some enhancements to the simulator. Those enhancements not only let them to do video monitoring of participants in the study, but perform physiological measurements of a driver’s heart rate and EEG—and they believe that some of their methods will not only be useful for research purposes, but could be applied to future autonomous vehicles on the road.

"The human factor is one of the biggest hurdles towards having an automated vehicle on the road,” Dr. Pradhan said, adding that it is “one of maybe three or four.” If he had to rank them all, he’d put human factor at number one, liability issues at number two, cybersecurity and privacy issues as number three, and ethical issues at number four—all of which, he noted, he ranks far ahead of technological issues. On that front, he said, we’ve “pretty much figured out what needs to be done.”

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