Nissan uses anthropologist to influence autonomous vehicle design

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Nissan are using highly skilled professionals in a variety of disciplines to help design the autonomous vehicles of the future, including automobile and software engineers, experts on sensor technology and artificial intelligence (AI), computer scientists, production specialists, electronics specialists and an anthropologist.

Melissa Cefkin, principal scientist and design anthropologist at the Nissan Research Center in Silicon Valley, California, ?is playing a key role in developing the company’s next generation autonomous vehicle by analyzing human driving interactions to ensure it is prepared to be a ‘good citizen’ on the road.

Representing a decidedly modern branch in the field of autonomous vehicle research and development, Cefkin is a corporate and design anthropologist, and specializes in ethnography, the systematic study of people and cultures, which in this case is conducted from the point of view of the subject, the autonomous vehicles.

Cefkin and the other members of her team are focused on the third milestone in Nissan’s autonomous vehicle program: ?the development of the vehicle’s capability to navigate city driving and intersections without driver intervention. This system is expected to be introduced in 2020, following the release in July 2016 of the first of Nissan’s autonomous drive technologies, ProPILOT, which is an autonomous drive technology designed for highway use in single-lane traffic. ProPILOT has 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, she and her team immediately began documenting not just interactions in the city involving drivers, but also those between vehicles and pedestrians, cyclists and road features.

“Car technology is continuing to evolve and change,” Cefkin explained. “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. That means taking a fresh look at how humans interact with a deeply and profoundly cultural object, the automobile, and gaining insights into how new technologies might interpret or act on those behaviors.

“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.”

Cefkin cited four-way intersections with stop signs as “a problematic and incredibly interesting situation we have examined closely” and said that what happens at a four-way stop intersection is open to interpretation: “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. We’re exploring how to communicate what the vehicle is doing, like stopping, waiting, yielding, about to go, going, in a way that would be interpreted in the same way by everyone. 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.”

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Tom has edited Traffic Technology International magazine and the Traffic Technology Today website since he joined the company in May 2014. Prior to this he worked on some of the UK's leading consumer magazine titles including Men's Health and Glamour, beginning his career in journalism in 1997 after graduating with a law degree from the London School of Economics (LSE).

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