Anthropology pilots autonomy & connected car tech research

stop-fourwayAnthropology  is playing a role in developing Nissan’s next generation autonomous vehicle. The science analyzing human driving interactions to maker sure the car can mimic human traits  “good citizen” on the road, especially when it comes to four-way stops when people interpret the eyes of the other drivers that are stopped.

“Car technology is continuing to evolve and change,” said Melissa Cefkin, principal scientist and design anthropologist at the Nissan Research Center in Silicon Valley. “And now, we’re adding this autonomous dimension to it 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.”

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 ethnography  —  which 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 “a deeply and profoundly cultural object”  — automobile  —  and gaining insights into how new technologies might interpret or act on those behaviors.

“(With autonomous vehicles), if there’s someone in the driver’s seat, that person may not be physically driving the car,” said Cefkin. “And in the future, we may go all the way to driverless so that there may not even be somebody in the driver’s seat.”

Cefkin and the other members of her team are focused on the third milestone in Nissan’s autonomous vehicle program  —  development 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 Nissan’s autonomous drive technologies, known as “ProPILOT,” an autonomous drive technology designed for highway use in single-lane traffic, and a “multiple-lane” 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 Valley’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.

“We’re trying to distill out of our work some key lessons for what an autonomous vehicle will need to know  —  what 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,” said Cefkin.

Cefkin cited four-way intersections with stop signs as a “problematic and incredibly interesting” situation her team examined closely.

“What happens at a four-way stop – it’s open to a lot of interpretation,” she explained. “Yeah, I’m supposed to stop, (but) once I’ve stopped it doesn’t tell me when to go again, so that’s up to me to figure out.”

Initial learnings from the study show that drivers, pedestrians and bicyclists often use “eye gaze” and forms of “direct communications,” such as a hand wave, “to give off very clear signals about their intentions” in such situations, Cefkin said.

“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,” said Cefkin.

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.

Nissan announced that the new Serena, scheduled to go on sale in Japan in late August, will come equipped with the company’s ProPILOT autonomous drive technology, for single lane highway mobility.

Former NASA researcher, Maarten Sierhuis who works on autonomous cars at Nissan Research Center (NRC) in California’s Silicon Valley believes is anthropology is important in HMI development.