Will You Need a Rider’s License for Your Driverless Car?

Robotic cars are coming. The IT and automobile industries have the throttle wide open to be the first to get the human out of the loop. The “Google Car” is becoming synonymous with an entirely new mode of transport. In January 2016, President Barack Obama and U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx announced a budget of $4 billion to accelerate how fast robots will hit the roads. Driverless technology is coming fast — but the period between now and full automation, or what transportation geeks call Level-4 automation, will require a significant period of transition. Level-4 automation is when the car will monitor road conditions and perform all safety functions without human control for an entire trip. Beyond the business, policy, legal, and transportation infrastructure issues, one of the first challenges will be to map out the new roles and responsibilities of the driver, turned rider, in our robotic future.  


I took a ride last week in the New England University Transportation Center and MIT AgeLab’s tricked-out Tesla equipped with sensors to monitor driver behavior and physiological state as they operate a semi-autonomous high-styled computer on wheels. Riding shotgun, I somewhat nervously watched my AgeLab colleague take his hands from the wheel to demonstrate the prowess of our semi-robotic vehicle. As our smart car ably and independently navigated the tight lanes on Memorial Drive alongside the Charles River, I found myself unconsciously leaning inward and away from the cars parked on the side of the road as if to influence the car’s path or to put distance between me and a long line of parked vehicles. I began to wonder not about the effectiveness of the technology, but how the role of the driver, soon to be passenger-for-life, may change. Will there be new rules, regulations, and responsibilities for the driverless car rider? Here are five questions that may shape the future of a rider license.

How to learn new technology? Before the car does it all, we will need to relearn how to drive. Devices and driver interfaces in the car today have changed more in the last 10 years than drivers have seen over several decades. Research conducted by the AgeLab and The Hartford Center for Mature Market Excellence suggests that drivers, particularly drivers over 50 years old, are interested in automated systems that help them drive and keep them safe. Despite the interest, drivers of all ages are stymied by the lack of education from automobile dealers, or anyone else, to help them learn, trust, and ultimately adopt today’s new warning and automated systems that are the precursor of tomorrow’s fully robotic car. 

How to transition from riding to driving? It may be some time before the car goes point to point with little input from the rider other than providing the desired destination. In the meantime, we may see dedicated roads or lanes for driverless cars leading to human-operated car roads and lanes. How long will it take the driver to put down their coffee or email to attain the situational awareness to assume adequate and safe control of the vehicle? Will transition from human control to automated control back to human be part of a new driver education curriculum or learned on-the-road at 60 MPH the way drivers are learning semi-automated systems today?

What is safe rider behavior? Other than the promise of safety, automated vehicles fill our imagination with ideas of what we might be able to do in the time that is lost today during our daily commutes. Despite the law, and common sense, we see people eat, drink, comb hair, shave, apply makeup, talk on the phone, text, and more behind the wheel. Volvo and partners are seeking to provide seamless streaming of entertainment to the car to fill those newly freed minutes and hours. Beyond streaming a movie, imagine for a moment what else might fill empty hours in your home on wheels. Will regulators or insurers set standards of what is reasonable behavior in vehicles where every seat is effectively the backseat?

What to do when it fails? Vehicle technology under development is good — really good, but it will fail. However infrequent and statistically de minimus, technology fails even in the most advanced and tested systems. Google recently reported that over 14 months up to November 2015, humans had to take control of their driverless car 341 times because of technology failure. Will riders of the future need to be prepared to act due to critical failure, a glitch, or to simply manage a delay due to a software update?

Will you buy rider’s insurance? During the many interim years where it will be unclear of where control lies, with the vehicle or the driver, how will risk be assessed, assigned and priced? Fast-forward when the vehicle is truly automated, will riders require insurance to manage the risk of riding in the car of the future?

Back in AgeLab’s semi-autonomous car — we parallel parked inches from the curb and spaced perfectly between two other vehicles using the Tesla’s automated parking system. All I could think was where was this awesome technology when I took my driver’s test? Tomorrow’s autonomous vehicle will revolutionize transportation — making personal mobility safer and seamless for people of all ages and capacities. While hard science and technology will make that future possible, we must urgently address the "softer" human challenges of transitioning to that safer mobile future.

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Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.