I feel the need, the need for speed.
We all know that famous line.
I feel the need, the need for acceleration.
That’s a line that doesn’t quite roll off the tongue.
It is also a somewhat different way to frame or discuss the need or rapt desire for speed. If you are driving a car, there is the notion of a moment-in-time aspect entailing the speed of the vehicle. We are legally supposed to not go over the stated speed limit. Our speed might be relatively slow when in a school zone and might be relatively high or fast when driving on an open freeway.
Some drivers relish driving fast and at times exceeding the speed limit. Perhaps they are late for work and are in a hurry to get to the office. Maybe the driver is someone that just relishes going fast. The posted speed limit might not necessarily be on their minds, other than as a general guide as to what their speed is supposed to be.
Acceleration is the attainment of speed based on increasing velocity over time. We all viscerally know this somewhat mathematical notion by the seat of our pants and experience it routinely while driving or perhaps outrightly when enjoying a breathtaking ride on a roller coaster.
Think about driving a car. Upon coming up to a red light, you bring your car to a stop and are no longer moving. Once the light turns green, you give your vehicle a bit of gas or push down on the accelerator pedal and the car rolls forward. Some drivers like to do those jackrabbit starts, pushing the pedal to the metal and skyrocketing down the street. Other drivers prefer a steady and gradual pace of acceleration.
Are you the type of driver that likes to do a quick snap from a standing position and gun your engine as you zoom along, or are you the type that prefers a calmer incremental semblance of acceleration?
In some ways, our driving laws tend to allow for a bit of latitude in your acceleration, whilst being tight or stern when it comes to speeding. There usually isn’t a stipulated rule that says you cannot do those rocketing accelerations. If you want to go from zero to 45 miles per hour on a street that has a speed limit of 45 miles per hour, you can choose generally how fast you want to get to that top speed. No rule normally exists that says you can only proceed at a pace of some X number of feet per second.
That being said, there is no question that you can get busted if your acceleration causes traffic-related problems. A driver that zips forward might disturb other traffic. Pedestrians that are crossing the street might be endangered. In short, though acceleration itself is not specially regulated, your acceleration can create unsafe roadway conditions and you can be appropriately cited accordingly.
On top of that possibility of a traffic violation, we ought to also consider the dangers of rapid acceleration. A driver that is screeching forward would seem more likely to get themselves into driving trouble. Your control of the car is lessened and you have less reaction time for any sudden appearance of an obstruction or coping with a dire issue such as a tire blowing out.
The rule of thumb usually is steady as things go.
Take your time. That doesn’t mean that you crawl at a snail’s pace. A really slow acceleration can be bad too. Not because you cannot control the vehicle, but because it might be confounding to other nearby drivers.
Someone that does acceleration like a turtle is bound to get an adverse reaction from other drivers nearby. Why is that person not going faster and getting more quickly up-to-speed? Other cars will tend to try and go around the slowpoke, which can produce a cavalcade of potential near collisions as vehicles jockey back and forth.
Confusion can also arise in that some other drivers might assume that there is a need to accelerate slowly, maybe due to a dog that has come onto the street or some other related factor. Those other drivers will start looking around and needlessly be distracted by the belief that a phantom reason exists for this driving behavior.
Someone that does acceleration as though being shot out of a canon will also usually get an adverse reaction from other drivers. Is that driver showing off? Indeed, this can induce other drivers to accelerate rapidly too. All of a sudden, a street race has been instigated. This worsens the situation since you now have a multitude of cars accelerating, whereas at least up until then it was just one vehicle doing so.
Road rage can readily erupt as a result of acceleration discontinuities. Those other drivers frustrated by the slow acceleration driver might get angry at the slowpoke and take untoward actions at that driver. Likewise, when there is a jackrabbit among other cars, there is likely a road rage that can emerge as other drivers try to cut off that Indy car or catch up and try to tell them off.
Now that we’ve covered a myriad of facets about car driving and acceleration, we might also contemplate how acceleration relates to stresses for the driver.
Do you think that while you are accelerating that you are under less stress or more stress than when driving along in general?
I suppose it is hard to say.
Some people get highly stressed by being in bumper-to-bumper traffic and for which there is minimal acceleration involved. You are going at a start-and-stop pace, crawling along. Some drivers get a bit of thrill by accelerating up an onramp onto a busy freeway since they know that once they get onto the freeway the traffic will be pretty much at a standstill and be agonizingly sluggish. They have a car, and cars can go fast, so they try to experience the fastness by zooming on the onramp. It is their only moment of glory at being behind the wheel of the vehicle while doing their daily commute.
Okay, so we can readily agree or at least acknowledge that acceleration can be a stress-inducing driving act, though we might also willingly concede that it is not the only driving act that can produce stress.
If you take a look at a newbie teenage driver, you can oftentimes see them sweating profusely while learning to drive a car. They grip the steering wheel like a vise. Facial expressions clearly show concentration, consternation, fear, etc. This can readily occur throughout an entire driving journey. As such, there isn’t any singular driving act or driving chore that they relax with, and the moment they start the engine until they turn off the car is filled with angst and dread.
Envision that you wanted to perform an analysis of how much stress a driver might be having throughout their driving journey. You could ask the person about their perceived stress levels. You could try to hook the person to a device that could attempt to physiologically calculate their stress. You could study the face of the person to see what facial expressions they make. And so on, including that the sweatiness of the person could be a consideration too.
Let’s focus on sweating.
One means of trying to quantify the degree or magnitude of stress involves measuring the amount of perinasal perspiration (known as PP) that a person is showcasing.
We typically think of having sweaty palms as an indicator of potential stress and will often wipe off our hands to try and get rid of the perspiration, especially if about to shake someone else’s hands. PP signals are typically commensurate with this palm-sweating, a form of electrodermal (EDA) activity.
You could potentially seek to detect the perinasal perspiration of a person by using a thermal imaging sensor that took readings via heat radiating from the face of a driver (akin to modern-day thermometers that let you point and detect if a person might have a fever or heightened temperature). Some parts of the face will be cooler and some parts of the face would be hotter. The abject temperature along with temperature differences can be readily measured and analyzed. An added advantage to this approach is that you don’t need to hook up the person to any particular device and nor do you have to ask them directly about their stress.
All told, the PP can serve as a surrogate for how much stress a person is seemingly experiencing. This is more formally cast as a stress-induced neurophysiological response that manifests as a transient form of perspiration taking place in the perinasal area.
Say that last sentence twice, fast, as it is quite the tongue twister.
Let’s bring together all of these topics into a nice tidy package.
An interesting new research study entitled “Arousal Responses To Regular Acceleration Events Divide Drivers Into High And Low Groups” was undertaken by researchers Tung Huynh (University of Houston), Mike Manser (Texas A&M), and Ioannis Pavlidis (University of Houston) to explore stress levels of drivers and made use of PP in doing so, closely examining acceleration events. Their paper was published in the ACM CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems Extended Abstracts, May 8–13, 2021.
In their study, they asked a selected sample of drivers to go ahead and drive an everyday route in a city setting that consisted of relatively light traffic and fair-weather conditions. Each driver drove the same route under roughly the same or similar circumstances. The driving effort could be characterized as relatively straightforward, pretty easy overall, and more like a mild driving romp than a maddening crowd-coping dog-eat-dog drive.
This is worth noting since the driving route and the manner of what kind of driving is required were able to be construed as a stable and consistent environment. If each driver had driven an entirely different route or in radically varying levels of traffic, it would make trying to contrast the stress-inducing moments and journey characteristics harder to compare. Likewise, if the driving had been snowy for some drivers and dry and sunny for others, this would have ostensibly significantly altered the driving practices and therefore variously prodded the stress exhibited during the driving task per each driver.
The occasions for acceleration were of the ordinary type that would be encountered in such a setting and are customarily referred to as naturalistic driving.
In contrast, if we put drivers onto a closed-off racetrack and asked them to drive in a spirited way, the odds are that you would witness quite a lot of rather strenuous acceleration efforts. This would be a somewhat artificially contrived setting that was unlike the natural or conventional driving chores that most of us face daily. For this study, the acceleration occurred in the ways we all are accustomed to doing so, such as when entering into a fast-moving stream of daily traffic, when proceeding from a red light that has turned green, etc.
The main research questions being addressed in the study were stated this way: “How do arousal responses of normal drivers relate to acceleration and other driving variables in the context of a standard commute? Is there any underlying grouping in these responses?”
Notice the use of the phrase “arousal responses” which simply connotes how reactive someone might be to a stimulus of some kind (this is the usual technical jargon common amongst such studies). The researchers had reviewed prior studies and identified the insight that there is apparently “a category of normal drivers who are hyperaroused during routine acceleration events – a phenomenon we call accelarousal, and which carries behavioral and design implications.”
In brief, the research results indicated: “A key contribution of this study is the clustering result that reveals an underlying high and low arousal grouping of normal drivers with respect to acceleration. The finding bears implications for certain categories of the driving population.” The implication is that some drivers are more likely to be accelarousal-prone versus other drivers (referred to as non-acceleration-prone drivers). Those drivers that are accelarousal-prone could especially be incurring greater levels of stress which over a lengthy spate of driving might have particularly adverse health effects.
Imagine for example that we have two drivers, both serving as ridesharing or ride-hailing drivers. Assume that one of them is accelarousal-prone and the other is not. They serve as drivers for many months, perhaps years, and doing so in equivalent terms of the number of hours driven and in the same city areas. Of course, it might be hard to compare them because of other varying factors, but let’s stick with this scenario for the moment.
It could be that the accelarousal-prone driver ends up with various stress-related ailments and suffers ergo from commensurate health consequences. Meanwhile, the other driver seems just fine, and the stress has washed off their back like a duck in water. If we didn’t realize that one was more prone to this acceleration stress, there might be quite a mystery as to why one was more adversely impacted by the driving than the other. Again, as a caution, we must be careful to not overinflate this example and need to consider a slew of additional factors that might come to play.
Which do you think that you are, the type of driver that is accelarousal-prone or the non-acceleration-prone driver?
I’ll let you ponder that for a moment. Maybe ask a friend or family member whether you are of one type or the other. That will certainly garner quite a bit of heated discussion and likely engage all in a lively discussion on the topic, that’s for sure.
Shifting gears, consider that the future of cars consists of self-driving cars. For my extensive coverage on the latest in Autonomous Vehicles (AVs) and especially self-driving cars, see the link here. Self-driving cars are driven via an AI driving system. There isn’t a need for a human driver at the wheel, and nor is there a provision for a human to drive the vehicle.
Here’s an intriguing question that has arisen: What impacts if any will the accelarousal-prone aspects have in an era of AI-based true self-driving cars?
Before jumping into the details, I’d like to clarify what is meant when referring to true self-driving cars.
Understanding The Levels Of Self-Driving Cars
As a clarification, true self-driving cars are ones that the AI drives the car entirely on its own and there isn’t any human assistance during the driving task.
These driverless vehicles are considered Level 4 and Level 5 (see my explanation at this link here), while a car that requires a human driver to co-share the driving effort is usually considered at Level 2 or Level 3. The cars that co-share the driving task are described as being semi-autonomous, and typically contain a variety of automated add-on’s that are referred to as ADAS (Advanced Driver-Assistance Systems).
There is not yet a true self-driving car at Level 5, which we don’t yet even know if this will be possible to achieve, and nor how long it will take to get there.
Meanwhile, the Level 4 efforts are gradually trying to get some traction by undergoing very narrow and selective public roadway trials, though there is controversy over whether this testing should be allowed per se (we are all life-or-death guinea pigs in an experiment taking place on our highways and byways, some contend, see my coverage at this link here).
Since semi-autonomous cars require a human driver, the adoption of those types of cars won’t be markedly different than driving conventional vehicles, so there’s not much new per se to cover about them on this topic (though, as you’ll see in a moment, the points next made are generally applicable).
For semi-autonomous cars, it is important that the public needs to be forewarned about a disturbing aspect that’s been arising lately, namely that despite those human drivers that keep posting videos of themselves falling asleep at the wheel of a Level 2 or Level 3 car, we all need to avoid being misled into believing that the driver can take away their attention from the driving task while driving a semi-autonomous car.
You are the responsible party for the driving actions of the vehicle, regardless of how much automation might be tossed into a Level 2 or Level 3.
Self-Driving Cars And Acceleration Stress
For Level 4 and Level 5 true self-driving vehicles, there won’t be a human driver involved in the driving task.
All occupants will be passengers.
The AI is doing the driving.
One aspect to immediately discuss entails the fact that the AI involved in today’s AI driving systems is not sentient. In other words, the AI is altogether a collective of computer-based programming and algorithms, and most assuredly not able to reason in the same manner that humans can (see my analysis at this link here).
Why this added emphasis about the AI not being sentient?
Because I want to underscore that when discussing the role of the AI driving system, I am not ascribing human qualities to the AI. Please be aware that there is an ongoing and dangerous tendency these days to anthropomorphize AI. In essence, people are assigning human-like sentience to today’s AI, despite the undeniable and inarguable fact that no such AI exists as yet.
With that clarification, you can envision that the AI driving system won’t natively somehow “know” about the facets of driving. Driving and all that it entails will need to be programmed as part of the hardware and software of the self-driving car.
Let’s dive into the myriad of aspects that come to play on this topic.
First, as mentioned, Level 4 and Level 5 won’t make use of a human driver and will instead be driven by an AI driving system. This means that whether a human driver is accelarousal-prone or not is no longer applicable since there isn’t a human driver at the wheel. That would seem to summarily close off any further discussion on the matter and we can go home now.
Au contraire, mon ami (on the contrary, my friend)!
There is the matter of putting some strident attention towards the passengers that are inside a self-driving car.
Perhaps the passengers are subject to being accelarousal-prone. This makes indubitable sense. When you are driving a car, and if you have someone in the vehicle with you, the manner in which you accelerate is likely to impact any such passenger too. I’m sure you’ve had moments whereby you slammed your foot onto the accelerator pedal and your passenger looked at you with shock or concern, likely not aware of what the roadway situation is and why you have opted to rocket forward.
You can ostensibly argue that the passenger is potentially less impacted because they aren’t driving the car and therefore do not carry the burden of the driving task. The logic is that the driver has both the acceleration to be confronted with and the grave responsibility of controlling the vehicle, incurring a double whammy of potential stress. The passenger is sometimes characterized as a compliant and otherwise relatively docile occupant that has no direct means of controlling the car, no more than a lump of clay.
Well, two can play at that game. You can make an additional argument that perhaps the stress on the passenger could actually be worse than for the driver.
The passenger is bereft of a direct means to control the vehicle and ergo entirely at the whim of the driver. You could make the case that this is even more stressful than being the driver. The passenger is going along for the ride and the use of acceleration can make that ride seem even more perilous and stressful. Meanwhile, the driver is calling the shots, as it were. When a person has no avenue of control over their destiny, there can be a tremendous amount of stress.
Let’s though for now not get mired into an endless debate about which has more stress, the driver versus the passenger, and instead be willing to agree that the passenger can have stress as a result of acceleration events. You would be hard-pressed to argue to the contrary.
To clarify, not all passengers would necessarily be subject to acceleration-induced stress. This brings us to a notable point. There is presumably the potential of having two types of passengers, those that are accelarousal-prone ones and those that are not accelarousal-prone.
Aha, this provides some valuable insight into the ongoing and future design, development, and use of self-driving cars.
AI driving systems of AI-based true self-driving cars ought to be devised to detect the different types of passengers and drive the vehicle differently depending upon the type present in the vehicle. For example, suppose there is a passenger alone in a self-driving car and the AI driving system has somehow ascertained that the person is accelarousal-prone. In that case, the AI driving system could purposely accelerate in rather steady ways and do so at a measured pace. No fast starts. No quick and startling moments of sudden acceleration.
This driving action of being sensitive to the accelarousal-prone nature of the passenger would need to be tempered by the driving situation at hand. Imagine that a big truck is about to swerve into the path of the self-driving car and the only viable escape requires the self-driving car to rapidly accelerate out of the way. The overall safety of the passenger and the vehicle would outweigh the otherwise preferred mode of doing acceleration in a more subdued fashion.
Self-driving cars are anticipated to contain inward-facing sensors such as video cameras and onboard microphones. This provision is used for a multitude of purposes. Passengers can use Zoom-like interactive sessions while traveling inside a self-driving car and take remote education courses. Another use would be for the AI driving system to monitor the occupants and try to determine if they might be marking graffiti or marring the interior of the vehicle. That might seem a bit gloomy as a reason, so we can also include that the mechanisms could detect when someone is having a sudden heart attack or other emergency and needs assistance.
Presumably, a thermal imaging sensor could be used too. This device could try to measure the PP and in a real-time attempt to ascertain the accelarousal-prone nature of the passenger. Based on that calculated analysis, the AI driving system would adjust the acceleration process accordingly.
Some might say that seems overly convoluted as an approach to determining the accelarousal-prone nature and it might be simpler to ask the passenger what they want. AI driving systems are likely to include a Natural Language Processing (NLP) system that is used to interact with passengers. A passenger could be asked what levels of acceleration they prefer. This is an abundantly easy form of interaction and akin to the capabilities of a contemporary Siri or Alexa.
There are a variety of additional twists and turns involved.
Briefly, for Level 2 and Level 3 conventional human-driven cars, there is an ongoing consideration about the handoff of the driving task, doing so in two ways. There is the driving system that requests the human driver to engage in the driving task, and there is the case of the human driver seeking to engage the driving system to undertake the driving task. To some degree, it might be useful for the handoff to incorporate whether the human driver is accelarousal-prone or not. Akin to the earlier discussion, this determination might be done via a thermal imaging sensor, via other sensors, or by using an NLP.
There is a subtle but important undercurrent in mentioning the Level 2 and Level 3 conventional human-driven cars.
The odds are that we are going to have a mixture of human-driven cars and AI-based true self-driving cars for quite a long time, likely decades or longer. There is not going to be an overnight magical switch from human-driven cars to all self-driving cars. Indeed, debates will become fierce about whether human drivers will have to entirely give up the driving task, for which some fervently vow they will not do so until you pry their cold dead hands from the wheel.
Assume for sake of discussion that there is going to be a mixture of human-driven cars and AI-based true self-driving cars on our streets, byways, highways, and freeways. One interesting question is whether acceleration as a standard practice will change due to this mixture.
For example, pundits emphasize that self-driving cars will be programmed to always drive cautiously and fully legally abide strictly by the rules of the road. I’ve repeatedly pointed out that this already is having an “unintended adverse consequence” on human drivers that are nearby to self-driving cars (see my column for discussions on these matters).
In short, human drivers get frustrated by the poking along with self-driving cars and are apt to try and accelerate around the seeming slowpoke vehicles. You see, oddly enough, the advent of self-driving cars could indirectly prod human drivers into doing more acceleration, including drivers that prior had not particularly done so. Just imagine how accelarousal-prone human drivers might react.
As they say, the best-laid plans of mice and humankind can oftentimes go astray.