Asleep At The Wheel? The Limits Of Self-Driving Cars

The era of driverless cars is dawning. But are we really ready to just let our vehicles take over?

Self-driving cars may one day allow us to text at the wheel, but not just yet
Self-driving cars may one day allow us to text at the wheel, but not just yet
Christina Müller

MUNICH — Brake, start, drive, brake again. Above all, be careful not to drive into the car in front of you. Stop-and-go traffic is annoying and unproductive. But soon cars will drive by themselves. And that raises all kinds of new possibilities, like reading the newspaper, checking your emails, or having breakfast — all while respecting the road laws.

Not bad, right? This, apparently, is the future for passengers of self-driving cars. It all sounds very practical. And if you believe what car manufacturers are saying, it's not going to be much longer before this becomes a reality. But will self-driving cars really be as hands-free as all that?

The truth is, we're still going to need to wait awhile until the passenger can really give the wheel its full autonomy. Because first of all, people and cars have to learn to coordinate with each other.

What customers can buy today are known as "Level 2" systems. The driver must constantly monitor the traffic and the assistance systems. Taking your hands off the steering wheel or quickly typing a message? Not allowed.

But even in the next stage of development — with Level 3 systems — vehicles still won't be autonomous from start to finish, though they will replace the driver in certain situations. Another problem is that international regulations haven't yet caught up to the quickly developing technology, as Audi, which announced a move toward Level 3 systems in 2017, can attest.

Testing the technology

Then there's the problem of coordination. If cars can control certain situations safely, but not all, they need to let the driver know when he or she must return to the wheel. Machine and man need to be in sync, in other words, and that's more complicated than it seems.

Because of legal requirements, it's unclear how long these issues will take to be sorted out. The German federal government, with its 36.3 million-euro research project "Co-Haf" involving both automakers and universities, now provides comprehensive data on what factors are involved when car and driver are mutually responsible for safety. But how the manufacturers use these findings or what lawmakers will decide to do with the information is still blurry.

But will self-driving cars really be as hands-free as all that?

Under the leadership of scientists from the Technical University of Munich, more than 1,700 people tested autonomous driving in a driving simulator and sometimes directly in real motorway traffic. The car used there was equipped with systems that signaled to the driver when he or she could completely relinquish control. In some cases, the vehicle was autonomous for up to one and a half hours.

In the tests, there was always a human driver who could intervene from the passenger seat. In between, there were always situations in which the car asked the driver to take over the wheel, so the subjects experienced exactly what the next step towards self-driving cars will be.

The researchers wanted to know what happens when a person is at the wheel, but no longer has to pay attention to traffic. More specifically, how can we ensure that the driver takes command again when the technology reaches its limits?

Professor Klaus Bengler, director of the Institute for Ergonomics at TUM, puts it this way: "Are there any positive or negative effects on time management for activities that are still prohibited at the wheel, such as eating or texting?" For now, he concludes, "The magic number of seconds for all imaginable activities does not exist."

Time for a little Tetris?

The first insight from the experiments is not surprising: If the driver does not have to pay attention to the traffic and has no other demanding task, he or she becomes inattentive and lethargic after a certain time. The experts call this "automation effect." The driving tests of the Munich researchers also showed that this can be counteracted.

According to Jonas Radlmayr, who was responsible for the experiments as a research assistant, "playing Tetris" is a great way to mentally engage the driver so that he or she can quickly take over again when the car can no longer steer alone. On the other hand, activities for which the drivers holds something in both hands prolongs the takeover time and are thus not advisable. Bad news for people imagining themselves in stop-and-go traffic with a coffee mug in one hand and a cigarette in the other.

The ignorance of motorists on what we should or should not do is a serious matter.

To determine a takeover time that makes sense, the assistance system needs as much information as possible about the current state of the driver. This means, in practice, that every blink and jerk in the seat should be registered and interpreted. This is possible, for example, with sensors in the seat, which can detect, among other things, when the driver turns in a different direction and is not facing the road anymore.

The system must be so intelligent, in other words, that it knows what the driver is doing. Only then can it properly calculate an appropriate reaction time. The Ko-Haf studies found that the amount of time necessary to retake control of the vehicle depends on how challenging the situation the driver has to deal with is, making this even more complex.

"The heart of the matter is that in many cases the existing systems will work well and the drivers will feel a sense of safety that does not exist in reality," warns Klaus Bengler.

The ignorance of motorists on what we should or should not do is a serious matter. And so, for the time being — and the foreseeable future — the only reasonable approach is to keep focusing on the road.

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Queen Elizabeth II with UK PM Boris Johnson at a reception at Windsor Castle yesterday

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Hej!*

Welcome to Wednesday, where chaos hits Syria, Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro is accused of crimes against humanity and a social media giant plans to rebrand itself. For Spanish daily La Razon, reporter Paco Rodríguez takes us to the devastated town of Belchite, where visitors are reporting paranormal phenomenons.



• Syrian violence erupts: Army shelling on residential areas of the rebel-held region of northwestern Syria killed 13 people, with school children among the victims. The attack occurred shortly after a bombing killed at least 14 military personnel in Damascus. In central Syria, a blast inside an ammunition depot kills five soldiers.

• Renewed Ethiopia air raids on capital of embattled Tigray region: Ethiopian federal government forces have launched its second air strike this week on the capital of the northern Tigray. The air raids mark a sharp escalation in the near-year-old conflict between the government forces and the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front (TPLF) that killed thousands and displaced over 2 million people.

• Bolsonaro accused of crimes against humanity: A leaked draft government report concludes that Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro should be charged with crimes against humanity, forging documents and incitement to crime, following his handling of the country's COVID-19 pandemic. The report blames Bolsonaro's administration for more than half of Brazil's 600,000 coronavirus deaths.

• Kidnappers in Haiti demand $17 million to free a missionary group: A Haitian gang that kidnapped 17 members of a Christian aid group, including five children, demanded $1million ransom per person. Most of those being held are Americans; one is Canadian.

• Putin bows out of COP26 in Glasgow: Russian President Vladimir Putin will not fly to Glasgow to attend the COP26 climate summit. A setback for host Britain's hopes of getting support from major powers for a more radical plan to tackle climate change.

• Queen Elizabeth II cancels trip over health concerns: The 95-year-old British monarch has cancelled a visit to Northern Ireland after she was advised by her doctors to rest for the next few days. Buckingham Palace assured the queen, who attended public events yesterday, was "in good spirits."

• A new name for Facebook? According to a report by The Verge website, Mark Zuckerberg's social media giant is planning on changing the company's name next week, to reflect its focus on building the "metaverse," a virtual reality version of the internet.


"Oil price rise causes earthquake," titles Portuguese daily Jornal I as surging demand coupled with supply shortage have driven oil prices to seven-year highs at more than $80 per barrel.



For the first time women judges have been appointed to Egypt's State Council, one of the country's main judicial bodies. The council's chief judge, Mohammed Hossam el-Din, welcomed the 98 new judges in a celebratory event in Cairo. Since its inception in 1946, the State Council has been exclusively male and until now actively rejected female applicants.


Spanish civil war town now a paranormal attraction

Ghosts from Spain's murderous 1930s civil war are said to roam the ruins of Belchite outside Zaragoza. Tourists are intrigued and can book a special visit to the town, reports Paco Rodríguez in Madrid-based daily La Razon.

🏚️ Between August 24 and September 6, 1937, during the Spanish Civil War, more than 5,000 people died in 14 days of intense fighting in Belchite in north-eastern Spain, and the town was flattened. The fighting began on the outskirts and ended in house-to-house fighting. Almost half the town's 3,100 residents died in the struggle. The war annihilated centuries of village history. The town was never rebuilt, though a Pueblo Nuevo (or new town) was built by the old one.

😱 Belchite became an open-air museum of the horror of the civil war of 1936-39, which left 300,000 dead and wounds that have yet to heal or, for some today, mustn't. For many locals, the battle of Belchite has yet to end, judging by reports of paranormal incidents. Some insist they have heard the screams of falling soldiers, while others say the Count of Belchite wanders the streets, unable to find a resting place after his corpse was exhumed.

🎟️ Ordinary visitors have encountered unusual situations. Currently, you can only visit Belchite at set times every day, with prior booking. More daring visitors can also visit at 10 p.m. on weekends. Your ticket does not include a guaranteed paranormal experience, but many visitors insist strange things have happened to them. These include sudden changes of temperature or the strange feeling of being observed from a street corner or a window. Furthermore, such phenomena increase as evening falls, as if night brought the devastated town to life.

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com


We still cling to the past because back then we had security, which is the main thing that's missing in Libya today.

— Fethi al-Ahmar, an engineer living in the Libyan desert town Bani Walid, told AFP, as the country today marks the 10-year anniversary of the death of dictator Muammar Gaddafi. The leader who had reigned for 42 years over Libya was toppled in a revolt inspired by the Arab Spring uprisings and later killed by rebels. Some hope the presidential elections set in December can help the country turn the page on a decade of chaos and instability.


Iran to offer Master's and PhD in morality enforcement

Iran will create new "master's and doctorate" programs to train state morality agents checking on people's public conduct and attire, according to several Persian-language news sources.

Mehran Samadi, a senior official of the Headquarters to Enjoin Virtues and Proscribe Vices (Amr-e be ma'ruf va nahy az monkar) said "anyone who wants to enjoin virtues must have the knowledge," the London-based broadcaster Iran International reported, citing reports from Iran.

The morality patrols, in force since the 1979 revolution, tend to focus mostly on young people and women, particularly the public appearance for the latter. Loose headscarves will send women straight to a police station, often in humiliating conditions. Five years ago, the regime announced a new force of some 7,000 additional agents checking on women's hijabs and other standards of dress and behavior.

Last week, for example, Tehran police revealed that they had "disciplined" agents who had been filmed forcefully shoving a girl into a van. Such incidents may increase under the new, conservative president, Ibrahim Raisi.

Speaking about the new academic discipline, Samadi said morals go "much further than headscarves and modesty," and those earning graduate degrees would teach agents "what the priorities are."

Iran's Islamic regime, under the guidance of Shia jurists, continuously fine tunes notions of "proper" conduct — and calibrates its own, interventionist authority. More recently the traffic police chief said women were not allowed to ride motorbikes, and "would be stopped," Prague-based Radio Farda reported.

Days before, a cleric in the holy city of Qom in central Iran insisted that people must be vaccinated by a medic of the same sex "as often as possible," and if not, there should be no pictures of mixed-sex vaccinations.

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

Thoughts on Facebook's new name? Zuckerverse? Tell us how the news look in your corner of the world: Drop us a note at info@worldcrunch.com!

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