What does an anthropologist bring to autonomous driving design?
From a Nissan press release (dated August 10, 2016)
One profession you might not expect to find at the design tableâ€Šâ€”â€Šanthropologistâ€Šâ€”â€Šis playing a key role in developing Nissanâ€™s next generation autonomous vehicle, analyzing human driving interactions to ensure that it is prepared to be a â€œgood citizenâ€ on the road.
â€œCar technology is continuing to evolve and change,â€ said Melissa Cefkin, principal scientist and design anthropologist at the Nissan Research Center in Silicon Valley. â€œAnd now â€¦ weâ€™re adding this autonomous dimension to it â€¦ that will bring around further changes in society, all the way down to the everyday way in which we interact and behave on the road.â€
While the term anthropologist may conjure up names like Claude Levi-Strauss, Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson, Cefkin, represents a decidedly modern branch of the field. She is a corporate and design anthropologist specializing in ethnographyâ€Šâ€”â€Šwhich is the systematic study of people and cultures from the viewpoint of the subject.
In the case of autonomous vehicles, Cefkin said that means taking a fresh look at how humans interact with â€œa deeply and profoundly cultural objectâ€â€Šâ€”â€Šthe automobileâ€Šâ€”â€Šand gaining insights into how new technologies might interpret or act on those behaviors.
(With autonomous vehicles), if thereâ€™s someone in the driverâ€™s seat, that person may not be physically driving the car. And in the future, we may go all the way to driverless, so that there may not even be somebody in the driverâ€™s seat.
Cefkin and the other members of her team are focused on the third milestone in Nissanâ€™s autonomous vehicle programâ€Šâ€”â€Šdevelopment of the capability for the vehicle to navigate city driving and intersections without driver intervention.
That system is expected to be introduced in 2020, following the release in July 2016 of the first of Nissanâ€™s autonomous drive technologies, known as â€œProPILOT,â€ an autonomous drive technology designed for highway use in single-lane traffic, and a â€œmultiple-laneâ€ application that can autonomously negotiate hazards and change lanes during highway driving, due in 2018.
When Cefkin joined Nissan in March 2015, after stints at IBM, Sapient Corp. and Silicon Valleyâ€™s influential Institute for Research on Learning, she and her team immediately began documenting not just interactions in the city involving drivers, but also those between vehicles and pedestrians, bicyclists and road features.
â€œWeâ€™re trying to distill out of our work â€¦ some key lessons for what an autonomous vehicle will need to knowâ€Šâ€”â€Šwhat it perceives in the world and then how it can make sense, make judgments and behave itself to be able to interact effectively in those different systems,â€ she said.
Cefkin cited four-way intersections with stop signs as a â€œproblematic and incredibly interestingâ€ situation her team examined closely.
â€œWhat happens at a four-way stop, itâ€™s open to a lot of interpretation,â€ she explained. â€œYeah, Iâ€™m supposed to stop â€¦ (but) once Iâ€™ve stopped it doesnâ€™t tell me when to go again, so thatâ€™s up to me to figure out.â€
Initial learnings from the study show that drivers, pedestrians and bicyclists often use â€œeye gazeâ€ and forms of â€œdirect communications,â€ such as a hand wave, â€œto give off very clear signals about their intentionsâ€ in such situations, Cefkin said.
â€¦we are working at the heart, the guts of the core technology and bringing insights and the kind of understanding that we have about human practices and human experience right into the fundamental design of the system.
That led to early planning on how an autonomous vehicle might communicate its next move, one vision of which was presented in the IDS Concept car.
Cefkin said that some features depicted in the video may end up closely resembling those of Nissanâ€™s autonomous vehicles in the next decadeâ€Šâ€”â€Šlike a light that â€œacknowledgesâ€ the presence of a pedestrian. The team is also exploring how to communicate the carâ€™s intention in situations where â€œmultiple agentsâ€â€Šâ€” â€Šsay numerous pedestrians or bicyclistsâ€Šâ€”â€Šare present. The key would be how to communicate what the vehicle is doing, â€œlike stopping, waiting, yielding, about to go, going, things like that,â€ in a way that would be interpreted in the same way by everyone.
Cefkin said such studies demonstrate the wisdom of having anthropologists involved in the earliest stages of vehicle design, rather than making adjustments later in the product cycle as some other automakers have done.
â€œWhatâ€™s different for us is we are working at the heart, the guts of the core technology and bringing insights and the kind of understanding that we have about human practices and human experience right into the fundamental design of the system,â€ she said.