It’s almost the end of 2019, so naturally, we are inclined to look back at what has happened in the year so far. There is no surprise that political and economic events are the most common fields of discussion. Yet, among the usual news, we see some quite spectacular things, such as the first photo of a black hole or the first world teen leader in the face of Greta, or the increasing number of countries that have legalized same-sex marriage.

These events are proof that new, much more human topics are gaining our interest quickly. But among science, human rights, and climate change, two more subjects emerge – technology and mental health. Should we be surprised by this combination?

We decided to look at this combination in the automotive industry. The all-time hottest topic – autonomous vehicles, – and the quality that makes us human – our emotions. Looking into these two together, we found something quite peculiar. One of the newest trends in autonomous vehicles is the development of their emotions. “Wait, what?”

Empathetic cars – the real revolution

New companies emerge with the core purpose of helping vehicles to be more aware of human emotions. Some of the names include Affectiva, Guardian Optical, Smart Eye, Seeing Machines, Nuance Automotive, BeyondVerbal, and Sensay. All of them have picked their names quite well, don’t you think? They all point to the human features and the emotional benefits they will be bringing to cars. An entirely new development for the automotive industry.

None of the names sound like the big old automotive producers, do they?  These companies choose to connect to their target audiences … on a rather human level. They are entering a completely new industry which, literally, did not exist a couple of years ago. And now, they face the task of making a rather new concept friendly and appealing to the regular people. It’s a tough challenge.

Teaching our cars emotional awareness

Naturally, artificial intelligence is at the core of these new tech dashboards. It teaches cars to “understand” the context of human behavior in order to respond in a way that supports human life, health, and happiness.

Today, car technology can do so much already. But with the new developments, vehicles will not only be able to send signals when danger arises but also alter and override the driver’s choices. Not only will technologies understand the way we drive, but they will outsmart us.

Some of the basic human conditions that car technologies will detect are the driver’s level of soberness, stress, confusion, distraction, or sleepiness. But wait, this is only the minimum. Moreover, they will know how to pay attention to other people in the car – the actions and emotional conditions, too.

Why do we need “sensitive” cars?

Why do we need to make cars more sensitive? It sounds a little absurd, really. There are people who lack emotional intelligence, and we are making machines more emotional. Because after all, cars are just machines. Just like a computer or a washing machine. All are man-made items that require humans to operate them.

Why do they need to be sensitive? Sensitive to workload, yes. But why would we want to have a machine that is sensitive to human emotions? The primary reason – safety.

Тechnically, all these companies are working on making automotive technologies more protective of us. Or more protective from us. We can say that, too. Because we know that it is often our own fault when something bad happens on the road.

As much as we want to blame technologies for accidents on the roads, in reality, we should be the ones to blame. According to various researches, the driver is at the core of most car-related accidents. Over 90 percent of all motor vehicle crashes happen due to human error.

It turns out we need to have guardians with artificial intellect to protect us from ourselves.

Data shows that drivers get distracted by things that are not directly related to road traffic and conditions. Such would be a nearby animal or a coffee spill in the car. If you are traveling with kids, the chances of distraction get even higher. How often do you look at the car radio when a sad song comes up and you want to change the station? Yes, that’s a potential disaster right there.

Are we OK with emotionally intelligent cars?

Let’s be honest about this. There are too many questions regarding the ethical perspective of the question. How can artificial intelligence make ethical decisions, really?

Researchers and automakers have been conducting studies to determine the basics principles for guiding the ethical decisions of self-driving vehicles. Thankfully, there are some principles people agree on. This study shows that on average, people want to spare human lives over animals, to save more lives over fewer, and to prioritize young over elderly. Somehow, these decisions are in harmony with global moral norms.

Yet, what happens when we look at more specific topics? For example, how does a vehicle treat a person who is jaywalking?

Some people are quite tolerant of this. And there are others who want to punish a jaywalker every time they see one. How does a vehicle decide what to do? If we zoom out a bit from the individual perspective, we will see that there are cultural factors that also play a role in our decisions.

Some cultures are more tolerant and protective of the community, others are more individualistic. Maybe Hofstede Insights should also have a say here. And even then, we see that autonomous vehicles will have a hard time evaluating ambiguous situations. When we consider the cultural differences in our moral understanding, things don’t seem as clear. People express their emotions differently, for various reasons across the world.

Moreover, we should question the reliability of such studies, too. There’s often a disconnect between what people say they feel and what they actually feel. This makes it hard to capture emotions in a trustworthy way and use the data as a reliable source to make decisions.

Back to the Future?

The safety of autonomous vehicles is under question because there isn’t enough data to back it up. Probably that’s how it also was at the start of the automobile era, too. No one had enough information to prove that cars are useful and safe. It took time, quite a bit of marketing, and audacity. Nobody talked about cars being emotional back then. It was quite a rational argument to prove why a car is better than a horse. It’s a machine, it’s all mechanics.

Now it seems like we are trying to make cars a bit like horses. Even though people don’t ride horses for transportation purposes in most parts of the world anymore, they are still a subject of interest for researchers. In fact, studies show that horses can recognize human emotions.

The Independent shares insights from more recent research that these animals can not only pick up on a person’s mood but have a “memory for emotion” that guides their future interactions with an individual.

People in the past did not need research to prove that. From the moment they owned a horse, they started building a relationship with it. Just like relating to any other sort of animal, this process goes through understanding and teaching. And in the end, a person can receive exactly what they want from the horse.

During riding, the horse would be alert, both subject to his rider’s commands, and also aware of his/her state. Whenever a horse sees a threat on the road, it would gallop to the side, even if its master pulled the bridle to go forward, wouldn’t it? A horse has its own emotions and character.

Going forward to conventional vehicles, it seems like the process is somewhat reversed. Once the vehicle is manufactured, it is the driver’s task to understand how it operates and learn how to work with it. A driver cannot really teach the car how to operate independently. He/she just has to learn how to drive it and adapt his/her driving skills based on personal condition, and the weather and traffic outside.

Now, with autonomous vehicles, it feels like we are going back to the two-sided relationship that people had with horses. Each can recognize the emotions of the other. Each can react protectively when the other can’t.

Should we stop nay-saying?

All of this leads to one simple conclusion. Maybe a self-driving car is the upgraded version of a horse? More so than we thought previously. It sounds a little funny and absurd, and it will for quite some time. Yet, this comparison might make us more open to autonomous vehicles.

While before we were asking questions on how an emotional self-driving car operates and how safe it is, now we want to know more about its personality.

Does this new feature give an autonomous vehicle… a soul? Does it make it equal to humans?

Would a person have to find a match when choosing a self-driving vehicle? Will there be a special one that matches one’s emotions and character?

And what would happen when a car gets emotional? Can other cars sense that, too? Is there such a thing as automotive empathy?

There is so much more we want to ask, both auto manufacturers and tech companies who create solutions for autonomous vehicles. But maybe we should just take a breath and do things the old-fashioned way. No neigh-ing, just giving it time.


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