Do passengers trust self-driving cars? Researchers at University of Waterloo want to find out

The University of Waterloo study, which is the first of its kind, measures people's emotional and physiological reactions to different styles of driving when riding in an autonomous vehicle.

Autonomoose team hopes to lay groundwork for a customizable self-driving experience

The Autonomoose team is programming the self-driving vehicle to drive more or less aggressively to observe differences in passenger reactions. (Melanie Ferrier/CBC)

At the University of Waterloo, researchers are exploring what it's like to be the passenger of a driverless car.

The Autonomoose team is recruiting volunteers to ride in the vehicle and measure their levels of anxiety as they experience in response to different driving styles.

"Based on past research even with non self-driving, it's been found that people have this buffer that they find acceptable driving," said graduate student Marko Ilievski. "And we were trying to explore the boundaries of that."

Ilievski is responsible for programming more and less aggressive styles of driving for the vehicle, in order to measure what each individual finds comfortable. These changes account for the speed of acceleration and deceleration as well as how close the vehicle brakes in relation to other external objects, such as other vehicles.

The car is equipped with cameras and light radars to judge its position and detect the things around it.

Gauging passenger reactions

Nicole Dillen, another graduate student and researcher, is responsible for measuring the stress response in passengers. That will be measured using four different sensors that measure involuntary physiological signals.

The passenger wears sensors that detect heart rate and perspiration on the skin, as well as special eye-tracking glasses, Dillen said. While the car is in motion, participants are asked to watch a video.

"We can measure what per cent of the time were they interested in the video and what percent of the time were they looking to see any potential dangers while driving," she said.

There's also a camera inside the car, recording the passengers physical responses to the car's behaviour.

Future applications

Although the team is not done processing all their findings, Ilievski said they've noticed that over time, people became more trusting of the Autonomoose car, and their stress appears to be largely situational.

"So for example, if you're behind a vehicle and you're aggressive that matters a lot more than if you just start accelerating without any other vehicle while being aggressive," Ilievski said.

The results of this phase of the team's research is expected to be published early next year. 

Dillen said that in the future, this experiment would "lead up to a sort of interactive system where the car ... would gauge how anxious the passenger was and based on that, it might actually be able to alter the driving style to fit the passenger's needs."


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