Speaker Spotlight: Greg Fitch | Unmanned Systems Institute

Speaker Spotlight: Greg Fitch

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What are you working on at the moment?

I lead the User Experience Group in the Center for Automated Vehicle Systems at the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute. My research focuses on driver interaction with technology. I’m currently investigating the human factors pertaining to automated vehicles, the distraction potential of automotive head-up displays, the reliability of automatic emergency braking systems on commercial vehicles, and driver performance and crash risk when using portable aftermarket devices.

What are the most critical obstacles to overcome to move from near-automation to fully automated vehicles?

Survey results from subject matter experts indicate that regulation will be the greatest barrier to overcome for the deployment of highly automated vehicles. The main question that has yet to be answered is who will be at fault if a highly automated vehicle crashes. However, there are other significant obstacles that must be addressed in parallel. One being what sensors are needed to yield reliable performance in inclement weather. This is of interest to me because we routinely perform controlled vehicle testing in artificially-created snow, rain, and fog on the Virginia Smart Road test track at the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute.

How will the timeline for truck-automation compare to car automation? Will certain features be more critical to one than the other?

Car automation will be driven by the need for improved convenience and comfort, while truck automation will be driven by return-on-investment decisions. Given that car drivers want improved comfort, I think systems like traffic jam assist and self-parking cars will be in high demand and undergo rapid development. Given that truck fleets want leaner operations such as improved fuel efficiency and logistics, I think systems like platooning will be sought after. Although safety is a fundamental reason automated vehicle technology should be developed, it will likely not be the primary reason people purchase the technology. Fortunately, safety improvements stand to be potential secondary benefits of the above technologies because of the automatic braking these systems provide.

NHTSA has added automatic braking technology to its recommended safety features for new vehicles. What similar technologies will follow suit?

AEB is a tremendously promising safety system. It stands to prevent or substantially reduce the severity of rear-end crashes by initiating a braking maneuver if the driver fails to do so. Drivers can fail to brake for many reasons, but a primary one is that they are visually distracted. Keeping the driver’s eyes on the road, particularly when operating partially automated vehicles, is imperative. I see several technologies undergoing great improvements that will help accomplish this goal.

The first technology is advanced voice recognition systems. Voice interfaces have been developed to allow drivers to interact with technology while keeping their eyes on the road and their hands on the wheel. The issue is, however, that these systems can be unreliable and difficult to use for some drivers. This can lead to drivers performing visual and manual interactions instead, which are well-known to be riskier. Once voice interaction with technology resembles voice interaction with humans, I think we’ll see a widespread adoption.

Another promising technology is Head-Up Displays (HUDs). HUDs are growing in popularity and the type of information they project will greatly change over the next five years. Designed well, they can help mitigate extensive visual attention away from the road. They can also help drivers monitor the state of an automated vehicle system and alert drivers when control needs to be transferred back to them.

According to NHTSA, half of all traffic fatalities result from roadway departures. Current Lane Keeping Assist Systems help keep vehicles in their lane on straight roads. However, extending LKA system operation to maintain a more central position in the lane and negotiate curved roadways will greatly reduce single vehicle roadway departures. With improved vehicle sensors and digital maps, there will be great improvements in Lane Centering Systems to help drivers keep the vehicle in their lane.  

What are the potential capabilities of HUDs in vehicles?

HUDs stand to help drivers better monitor both the road and the operation of an automated vehicle. There is a serious potential for driver distraction, however, that requires human-machine interface design to ensure safe operation.

When will the interface of a vehicle look drastically different than what we’re used to?

It is well known that Google is working on a highly automated vehicle that has no steering wheel and brake pedal. They have stated that they could release their technology in the next 3-5 years, however, in what form the technology is released is unclear.

How will vehicle automation impact distracted driving? What are the projections for the next 5, 10, 15 years?

This is a great question. Driver distraction is a growing epidemic, primarily because of the number of devices people bring into the vehicle and use while driving. A shared concern is how to ensure drivers understand when they need to be monitoring the road, and when they are allowed to withdraw from the driving task (in the case of highly automated vehicles). The human-machine interface is key to safe and successful vehicle operation.

What is the status of the Transportation Research Board on vehicle automation?

The Transportation Research Board is highly active in vehicle automation planning, research, and information sharing. In particular, TRB in conjunction with AUVSI holds a symposium every summer on road vehicle automation. The next one is coming up July 21-23, 2015. More information can be found at http://www.automatedvehiclessymposium.org.


Greg Fitch will be presenting a case study at USI 2015 Conference with research from Virginia Tech & NHTSA. The USI 2015 Conference will be December 14-16, 2015 in San Diego, CA. For more information, check out our agenda or register to attend.

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