Big Drive on Automation Research at Leeds

The Institute’s Safety and Technology (S&T) Research Group is driving forward with research to help understand how humans will perform and interact with the vehicles of tomorrow.

The team, currently led by  Associate Professor Dr Natasha Merat, has been involved in a range of projects which have looked at the effect of new vehicle technologies on driver behaviour. Increased automation, involving systems and technology that provide further support to the driving task, is being developed and implemented at a rapid pace in vehicles and, according to PhD candidate Tyron Louw, it has opened up a whole new field of research. “On the most basic level, the way we drive hasn’t changed much since the invention of the car. In the coming decades, however, the driving task is going to become increasingly automated, which fundamentally changes the way in which we will use and interact with our vehicles, both personal and public,” said Louw.

As project partners in the AdaptIVe (Automated Driving Applications & Technologies for Intelligent Vehicles) and CityMobil2 projects, funded by the European Commission, the S&T Group at Leeds is currently building on expertise gained in previous projects on automation, such as EASY (Effects of Automated Systems on Safety) and CityMobil.


The AdaptIVe project (coordinated by VW), which continues the work achieved from previous projects, HaveIT and InteractIVe, has set out to develop and test new functionalities for cars and trucks, offering both partially automated and highly automated driving on motorways, in urban scenarios, and for close-distance manoeuvres. Using the University of Leeds Driving Simulator, researchers in the S&T Group will conduct a series of simulator experiments with the focus on understanding how drivers will behave before, during, and after they are required to take control of an automated vehicle.

The importance of investigating the driver’s role in automation is self-evident, says Louw. “There is a common assumption that giving vehicles automation will automatically be safer for the driver. However, (for the foreseeable future) automation technology in vehicles will still require the driver to take control in some situations, and because we know driver error has some role in the majority of crashes, we need to look closely at that interaction. It is our goal, as human factors experts, to understand the drivers’ capabilities and limitations in this new environment, because automation is marching towards us and humans aren’t going anywhere,” said Louw.


The other project on automation currently in progress at Leeds, CityMobil2 (coordinated by CTL, University of Rome), is a major research, development and demonstration project addressing the integration of Automated Road Transport Systems (ARTS) in the urban environment. The team at Leeds is working closely with researchers at The German Aerospace Centre (DLR) to understand road users’ interaction with automated public transport systems. Talking about the importance of this aspect of the project Louw said, “An ARTS is similar to existing public (bus and tram) transport systems in many ways but it differs in one important respect, there is no driver. On the surface it doesn’t seem like this would be a problem, but seeing the driver has become a familiar and important cue for road users; it is important to understand whether and to what extent their behaviour around these vehicles will change if there is no driver. Using this information we hope to create a smoother integration of ARTS into the existing transport infrastructure.”

In addition, the Institute for Transport Studies has two PhD students doing research in the area. Pablo Guillen, in collaboration with the School of Computing and the Institute of Psychological Sciences, is developing an Adaptive Automation system for drivers who fall asleep behind the wheel. “The main goal is to develop/adopt a Machine Learning algorithm that can use physiological (EEG, blinking, heart rate, etc.) and driving behaviour (lane deviation, steering deviation, etc.) variables of the driver to determine their level of sleepiness. After that, it will decide if the driver needs partial or complete help in driving tasks by changing the level of automation of the car,” said Guillen. Tyron Louw, supervised by Dr Natasha Merat and Dr Hamish Jamson, is researching how to ensure drivers can safely take back control of an automated vehicle. “Fatigue/sleepiness, distraction and monotony reduce drivers’ ability to respond to critical events. The idea behind automation is that if you remove the human error element from the equation, then there should be fewer collisions. The irony of automation, however, is that if the system suddenly needs a sleeping or movie-watching driver to take back control of the vehicle, you may find drivers more sleepy and/or distracted, which means they would be in a worse off position to respond to a critical situation than if they were driving all along. My goal is to better understand the human capabilities and limitations in that situation, which will hopefully encourage a more human-centred approach in the design of automated vehicles,” said Louw.

The desire to test the feasibility of implementing ‘driverless cars’ on real roads is gaining momentum in the UK and Europe, and although one main aim may be to investigate the technological feasibility of such systems, the question of how drivers and road users perceive and interact with these vehicles and an appreciation of their added value by the general driving population is clearly crucial for public acceptance and uptake. Through its involvement in the iMobility working group and its recent selection as one of seven academic centres of excellence by the Transport Systems Catapult (TSC) – the national research and innovation centre for Transport Systems – the S&T group and the Transport Systems Hub, is hoping to engage policy makers in discussions concerning the human factors relevance and challenges posed by these systems.

As a result of her involvement in the European iMobility group on Vehicle Automation and the Vehicle & Road Automation (VRA) project, Dr Merat is organizing a special session on Human Factors: Challenges of Vehicle Automation this September, at the 21st World Congress on Intelligent Transport Systems in Detroit. She is also currently editing a special section of Transportation Research Part F on this topic. This work complements a special issue of the Human Factors journal on Vehicle automation and driver behaviour, published in 2012.

 AdaptIVe will run until 2018 and CityMobil2 will run until 2016.


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