AI: The Answer to Road Rage?

September 24, 2020 - 9 minutes read

artificial intelligence app developmentWhen we think of artificial intelligence (AI)-enabled cars, most of us jump straight to self-driving cars that take away the most difficult parts of driving: the anxiety, the constant attention required, and avoiding a collision. But an AI application in the form of a road rage chatbot may end up having the most profound effect on our driving.

The Great Expectations for Autonomous Driving Are Unfounded So Far

Before the pandemic, according to the U.S. Census, three out of four U.S. workers were commuting to their office in a car. From 2005 to 2017, there was a 32% increase in “super commuters” that trekked 90 minutes or more one way. Driving such a long time every day inevitably leads to exhaustion, which messes with our general perception and emotions. In general, longer driving commutes have been linked to high blood pressure, stroke, obesity, and sleep disorders.

Switching from driving is one solution to find some relief. Research shows that those who take trains, walk, or bike to work tend to be happier commuters than driving commuters. A University of Amsterdam study even found out that those taking alternative methods to work miss their commute more during lockdown than those who usually drive to work.

But not every town or city has the infrastructure of New York City or San Francisco; taking a train or bus could add hours to a person’s commute, especially as the suburbs expand out to offer more affordable housing. Even in a big city like New York City, there are very few concessions for disabled or wheelchair-bound commuters, and regular train commuters often face delays and closed subway stations without prior notice.

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Automotive manufacturers have touted the idea of self-driving cars for the past few years. The companies claim that this cure-all technology will be available in the near future, and it will allow us to relax while the car, equipped with machine learning applications and an array of sensors, drives us safely to our destination. Eventually, we’ll be able to sleep, read a book, or watch Netflix without worrying about causing an accident or missing the right highway exit.

Google said in 2012 that self-driving cars would be widely available within five years, and they repeated this sentiment again in 2015. Tesla hasn’t launched any fully autonomous cars either. It’s almost the end of 2020, and we’re mostly still relegated to our old-school cars.

It turns out that it’ll actually be decades before fully autonomous cars hit the road in mass numbers, so this is not a solution available for daily commuters and road rage incidents. We need to work on creating a solution that doesn’t require buying a brand new car (how many people can afford to hand over $40k+ for a brand new car in the next five years, anyway?) or installing an expensive after-market technology.

Research to the Rescue

A small group of researchers is tackling how we can make our cars work for us and make us happier while we drive. The most stress-inducing driving incidents occur when drivers need to change lanes, enter a crowded and complex intersection, and make left and right turns. Car manufacturers have started including more advanced technology to increase driver safety, like blind spot sensors, collision detection, and drowsy driving detection.

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A 2015 study found that driver commuters were more stressed by their trip than those taking public transportation or biking to work. The drivers mentioned that it was because of the inconsistency that traffic, accidents, roadwork, and other traffic issues create in their schedule and commute. An Oregon-based company named Traffic Technology Services (TTS) develops a product called the Personal Signal Assistant.

It lets cars communicate with traffic signals in towns where that data is publicly available. Audi, TTS’s first client, used the system to add a tool to their cars that visually counts down how much time is left at a red light for the driver. This tool was originally designed to keep traffic flowing nicely, but Audi drivers reported a huge decrease in stress.

Enter a Friendly Little Chatbot

Pablo Paredes is the director of the Pervasive Wellbeing Technology Lab at Stanford’s School of Medicine. His lab focuses on how to change the habits and objects that people use in their daily lives to improve their physical and mental health. For Paredes, the daily commute is a challenge he is excited about transforming into something more therapeutic. “There are very simple things that we’re overlooking in normal life that can be greatly improved and really repurposed to help a lot of people,” he says.

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In a 2018 study, Paredes and his team created a technology to infer the driver’s muscle tension using their hand movement on the car’s steering wheel. They’re continuing to improve the technology to this day. The lab uses a Nissan Leaf that’s been equipped with a variety of technologies from years of work and experimentation at Paredes’s lab. These tools are all designed to work together to decrease the driver’s stress.

One of the newer technologies is a chatbot that offers guided breathing exercises. It involves using the driver’s seat to vibrate along the driver’s back to create a rhythm for the driver to inhale and exhale to. The study’s results showed that the breathing exercises reduced driver stress and breathing rate without impairing the driver’s performance or attention. The next step for this tool is to use lower-frequency vibrations to slow breathing and reduce stress without the driver’s conscious attention.

The lab wants to eventually sell a car with these tools outfitted within the automobile’s system: the chatbot would even make a joke or talk through a problem with you, guided by learnings from cognitive behavioral therapy research. Paredes says this technology can fit right into a fully autonomous car when the time comes because the person inside will still be stressed, anxious, and fearful.

ETA Is Unknown

Paredes’s lab suspended research during the pandemic since it’s difficult to socially distance in a compact car. Although the lab has filed patents for the technologies, it’s not known when the tools will be released for the public to purchase. TTS is expanding its technologies with other auto manufacturers, but they will likely be released in only new cars.

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And, of course, there are data implications, as well as ethical considerations for commercial drivers (should their companies be allowed to mandate that the driver not use the relaxation technology due to the duties of the job itself?). Will use of the relaxation technology be available for law enforcement to use against you in court if something happened? Overall, however, these are the same questions we’re asking about fully autonomous cars, and the answers will vary by the type of technology as well as its application.

What do you think about adding relaxation features to your car? Would it improve the driving experience for you, or would you rather wait for fully autonomous cars to launch? Let us know in the comments below!

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