So why would a car manufacturer
ANTHROPOLOGY is defined as a science dealing with the origins, physical and cultural developments of humankind as well as our biological characteristics and social customs.
Put another way; anthropologists are people who study humanity because they want to know what it is that makes us human.
So why would a car manufacturer want an anthropologist on the design and development team for a conceptual self-driving car?
Nissan, currently designing and refining a future autonomous vehicle at its Nissan Research Centre in Silicon Valley, near San Francisco, California, has brought together a team comprising some of America's best technical talent with car and software engineers, sensor technology and artificial intelligence experts, computer scientists and production specialists.
And anthropologist Melissa Cefkin.
Rather than studying ancient cultures, Dr Cefkin is described as a corporate and design anthropologist specialising in ethnography and is much more interested in modern cultures.
When it comes to autonomous vehicles, she says that means taking a fresh look at how humans interact with what she describes as a "deeply and profoundly cultural object", the car.
"Car technology is continuing to evolve and change, and 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.
"In the future we may go all the way to driverless (vehicles) so that there may not even be somebody in the driver's seat." she said.
(With autonomous vehicles), if there's someone in the driver's seat, that person may not be physically driving the car.
Currently, the development team is looking at what it calls ‘the third milestone' in Nissan's autonomous vehicle program, an autonomous drive system known as ‘ProPILOT', a self-drive technology designed for highway use in single-lane traffic and a multiple-lane application that can autonomously negotiate hazards and change lanes during highway driving.
The multi-lane unit is expected to debut in 2018 while the single-lane version should follow in 2020.
Dr Cefkin and her team had to analyse driver interactions, not just involving other drivers but also pedestrians, cyclists and road features.
The study showed that drivers, pedestrians and cyclists often use eye contact and other forms of direct communications, such as a wave, to indicate their intentions" in such situations, and that meant bringing human understanding, practices and experience into the electronic systems' design.
Even ‘Stop' signs bring a degree of difficulty to the electronics in a way Dr Cefkin describes as "problematic and incredibly interesting". What happens at a stop sign is open to a lot of human interpretation because a Stop sign does not tell drivers when they can proceed, leaving that to the driver to work out.
That led to early planning on how an autonomous vehicle might communicate its next move, one vision of which was presented in the IDS Concept car which highlights some features that may end up closely resembling those of Nissan's future autonomous vehicles.
Dr Cefkin said such studies demonstrate the wisdom of having anthropologists involved in the earliest stages of vehicle design rather than making adjustments later in the product cycle, as some other carmakers have done.
"What's different for us is that 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, Dr Cefkin said.
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