So far, driverless cars are legal only in California, Nevada,
Michigan, Florida and the District of Columbia. Still, new
partially automated vehicle systems are hitting the market every
year. Cars ranging from the budget-friendly Ford Focus to
the luxury Range Rover Evoque can parallel park themselves.
Automakers including Mercedes and BMW have released cars
that speed up and slow down automatically in stop-and-go
Google’s self-driving cars have gone even further: A fleet
of about a dozen fully autonomous test cars have logged more
than 700,000 miles on public and private California roads,
ferrying passive passengers safely down city streets, pulling into
parking spots and cruising through the drive-thru to pick up
tacos. The latest iteration of Google’s car doesn’t even have a
From a psychological perspective, says University of Utah
psychologist David Strayer, PhD, the changes afoot may very
well be revolutionary.
“I suspect [vehicle automation] will be as transformational
as the Internet was,” he says.
But this transportation transformation won’t come without
challenges. To safely put driverless cars on the street, researchers
first need to understand how people interact with these
automated systems. On the road to fully driverless vehicles,
the first stop will be semi-automated systems that still rely on
human operators. Psychologists can help figure out how to keep
drivers alert and aware, even as the car does much of the work
While the engineering issues of automated cars are being
addressed, says Strayer, “the tough psychological problems have
yet to be solved.”
Automotive designers have a good incentive to get human
drivers out from behind the wheel: public safety. In 2012,
according to the most recent figures from the National Highway
Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), 33,561 people were
killed in car crashes in the United States, and an estimated 2. 36
million were injured. According to NHTSA, a number of major
crash studies have found that human error caused more than 90
percent of those crashes. In a perfect world, technology would
take driver error out of the equation.
“One of the most dangerous things we do is get behind the
wheel,” notes Strayer.
Yet while safety is a prime motivation, it’s not the only
potential benefit of automated cars. Driverless vehicles could
improve mobility for the elderly and people with impairments
that prevent them from driving. Case in point: A video on the
Google website shows a legally blind “driver” zipping around
town in one of the company’s driverless test cars.
Automated vehicles may also offer environmental benefits.
Self-driving cars could be programmed to cruise at speeds that
maximize fuel efficiency, for example. And a fleet of vehicles
that communicate with one another could limit congestion by
steering cars to less clogged streets, minimizing time that cars
(and their polluting emissions) are on the road.
But before society can reap those benefits, experts caution
there are important problems to solve. Namely, since people
interact with technology in unexpected ways, how will each
individual driver engage with an automated car?
For some people, automation might lead to complacency,
says Nicholas Ward, PhD, a human factors psychologist in
the department of mechanical and industrial engineering at
Montana State University. Drivers who put too much trust in
automation may become overly reliant on it, overestimating
what the system can do for them.
Ward also warns about the potential role of risk taking.
According to some (albeit contentious) models of risk taking,
people seek to maintain a preferred level of risk. If a vehicle
system is designed to reduce risk by, say, braking automatically,
drivers might adapt by driver faster or following closer. “If you
make things safer, some people will find ways to get that risk
back,” he says.
Information overload may be another concern, says Neville
Stanton, PhD, a psychologist at the University of Southampton
in the United Kingdom, who studies human performance in
technological systems. While automated systems are designed
to take pressures off the driver, he’s found that they may add
complexity in some cases. In an automated system, drivers may
feel compelled to monitor the behavior of the system as well as
Bumper-to-bumper traffic, distracted drivers, ill-timed lights. Who wouldn’t like to revamp their daily commute? Imagine instead reclining your seat, sipping a coffee and checking your email while your vehicle drives you to work.