General Motors plans to introduce a semi-autonomous driving system, similar to Tesla’s Autopilot, sometime next year. The system is called Super Cruise, and one aspect of how it uses hazard lights has been singled out by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration with a note of caution.
Super Cruise is a pretty interesting system. In addition to requiring the driver keep his or her hands on the wheel, it uses facial recognition software to determine if a driver is asleep or inattentive. And when itfinds that the driver is not, in fact, paying attention, so the system activates the hazard lights and brings the car to a controlled stop on the side of the road.
NHTSA has some objections about this, which is strange since GM asked them to confirm the use of emergency blinkers was kosher back in March. At the time, this use of hazard lights was determined to be fine. But as The Detroit News reports:
NHTSA Chief Counsel Paul Hemmersbaugh said GM’s plan to use hazard lights to indicate problems after the car is stopped “is the prototypical situation in which the hazard lights are intended to be used and it is one of the situations that other motorists have come to expect when they see the hazard signal.”
At this point I’d like everyone to picture the NHTSA’s massive Hazard Light Research Facility, housed in a large concrete bunker with a massive bank of orange lights that blink on and off, forever.
Also, I’d like to mention that I just realized how many names we have for these lights: four-ways, emergency blinkers, flashers, hazard lights, all-corner blinkers, tangerine-alert pulsars, and so on.
So, while NHTSA agrees that the use of flashers there is fine, they went out of their way to state that GM needs to be sure that activating the flashers doesn’t cause “an unreasonable risk to safety.”
Honestly, for all the issues a semi-autonomous system causes, I think the blinker question is the last problem anyone should be looking at. These halfway autonomous systems are doomed because of human nature, which almost always means that if a car is doing a significant percentage of the driving, people tend to tune out completely. There have already been several well-publicized wrecks where this may have been a significant factor.
While I think most drivers will understand the gist of what the hazards blinking on a Super Cruise-equipped car making its way to the side of the road means, the problem could be solved with a dedicated light for an inattentive-driver situation, which happens to be an idea I proposed way back in 2012. To much ridicule, if I recall.
NHTSA urges of hazard-light caution aside, it looks like there will be another Autopilot-level semi-Autonomous system on the roads sometime next year, likely introduced on the Cadillac CT6.
What will make GM’s system interesting is the use of facial recognition to determine if you’re alert enough. What if you just have a bored-looking or sleepy face? What about people like Mr. Suave from Blue Velvet?
I guess we’ll just see.