The technological landscape is ever-evolving, a testament to human ingenuity and the quest for progress. At the vanguard of this innovation is the automotive industry, where the journey towards autonomous vehicles (AV) is not just a leap but a transformative flight into the future of transportation. This is a future painted with the promise of safety, efficiency, and environmental sensitivity—a future where travel transcends the conventional and embraces the extraordinary.
Central to this transformative vision is Jingyi Zhang, a pioneer whose work at the intersection of human factors and automation is defining the pulse of this new era. With a master’s degree in Industrial Engineering and a decade of industry experience, she is the visionary weaving the very fabric of user experience into the heart of autonomous technology. It’s her insights and innovations that ensure the interaction between man and machine is not just functional, but also inherently safe and instinctively intuitive.
Her journey, marked by a constellation of patents and scholarly papers, illuminates the path for an industry at the crossroads of human-centric design and robotic precision. It is her collaboration with titans such as Nissan North America that exemplifies the synergy between thought leaders and the potent potential of cooperative ventures. Zhang’s story is a narrative of perseverance, intellect, and a relentless commitment to harmonizing the mechanics of AVs with the organic complexities of human life.
Jingyi, diving right into it, you’re passionate about the social aspects of AV technology. What stands in the way of people fully trusting these vehicles, and how do you plan to overcome that?
Unlike individuals working in tech or AV technologies, the general public might not grasp AV operations as comprehensively. AVs perceive their environment through point clouds and bounding boxes, constantly making motion decisions within milliseconds. Consequently, although some AVs may resemble conventional cars, their behavior can significantly differ. For instance, they might engage in constant stopping and going or inch forward unpredictably, which can perplex surrounding road users as to the AVs’ intentions.
This knowledge gap can lead to public misunderstandings about AV capabilities, resulting in either undertrust or overtrust in the technology. I believe that bridging this gap is crucial. By increasing the transparency of AV technology and revealing what the AV is “thinking,” we can help the public gain a better understanding of it, thereby enhancing trust and acceptance of the technology.
The HMI (Human-Machine Interface), both internal and external, serves as an ideal channel for this purpose.
Safety is a massive part of this conversation. What do you think are some of the critical, yet overlooked, safety conversations we should be having about AVs?
Autonomous vehicles possess distinct advantages over human drivers regarding driving capabilities—they don’t fatigue, they remain undistracted, they’re always sober, and they can react extremely quickly.
However, this does not imply that AVs are completely infallible. Since autonomous vehicles interpret the world in a fundamentally different manner, their actions may appear unexpected or unpredictable to a human driver. Therefore, it is still essential to maintain the usual level of vigilance on the road when interacting with or navigating around AVs.
When it comes to public concerns, what myths are you constantly busting, and how do you address the skeptics?
The public often expects that AVs will mirror human driver behavior. While the aim is to emulate “human-like” driving, AVs inherently behave differently, which can create tension on the road.
To address this, one effective strategy could be to clearly communicate the AV’s processing and decision-making to the public in an intuitive manner. This could facilitate a greater understanding of the technology and increase its acceptance.
In response to an earlier question, I touched on the complexity of how AVs perceive their environment—through point clouds and bounding boxes—and make rapid motion decisions. This discrepancy in behavior from human drivers, like unexpected stopping and going, can cause confusion among road users about what AVs are attempting to do.
The existing knowledge gap may lead to misconceptions about AVs’ capabilities, resulting in either an underestimation or overreliance on the technology. By enhancing the transparency of how AVs function, specifically through what the AV is “thinking,” we can help demystify the technology for the public. This, in turn, can foster increased trust and acceptance.
Again, the HMI plays a crucial role in this endeavor, serving as the optimal conduit for enhancing public understanding and interfacing with AV technology.
As you develop these vehicles, how do you factor in the ethical questions that come up with AV technology?
Within my field of Human-Machine Interfaces, a foundational principle is the objective presentation of an AV’s internal states to convey its intentions, such as indicating when an AV is stopping, rather than instructing road users to stop. This approach emphasizes transparency in communication between the AV and its environment.
Regarding AV technologies at large, a prudent starting point would be to design and program AVs to avoid scenarios that require them to make ethical decisions. By preemptively addressing these situations through technology and design, we can potentially circumvent the complex dilemmas that could arise during operation.
Collaboration is key, of course. How do you work with regulators and other stakeholders to ensure AV safety is a priority across the board?
Enabling effective communication involves actively listening to stakeholders, fully acknowledging their comments and concerns from their unique perspectives.
To foster collaboration, it is vital to share the insights we’ve gained with the wider community through various platforms, including conferences, panel discussions, and exhibitions. The goal is to maintain as much transparency as possible, thereby building trust and a sense of shared purpose.
Engaging with the community is crucial. Do you have any stories that illustrate the impact of these interactions?
We consistently engage with public feedback, utilizing both passive methods, such as monitoring various social media channels, and active approaches, including focus groups and surveys.
A particularly memorable encounter occurred during a focus group with the mobility and vision-impaired community. This session afforded me a deeper insight into their challenges with the current transportation system. Their enthusiasm for autonomous vehicles and robotaxis was incredibly motivating. I perceive significant potential benefits that AV technology could offer to this community, such as more accessible vehicle designs, reduced travel costs, and expanded public transportation options.
Looking to the future, how do you see AVs integrating into society, especially from a safety and trust perspective?
Safety is the number one priority, not just for AV companies, but for traditional car manufacturers as well. I am convinced that autonomous vehicles have a crucial role in enhancing road safety—imagine a world with no more texting or drunk driving incidents because of AVs.
However, we are currently in the early stages of AV deployment. The technology is still being fine-tuned, and the public is learning how to understand and properly interact with AVs. Developers are hard at work improving the technology, but there is also a need for Human-Machine Interfaces (HMIs) or other means to assist the public in better understanding AV technology and in learning how to interact with AVs safely.
To achieve this, a considerable amount of work is necessary to integrate HMIs into all cars. This work encompasses not only the technological development and user training but also extensive regulatory efforts.
The journey continues
Jingyi Zhang’s narrative is far more than a chronicle of technological ascendancy; it is a profound commitment to the confluence of innovation and human values. As we peer into the horizon, her insights are not just illuminating the road ahead but also laying the groundwork for a future where the symbiosis of trust and technology shapes the bedrock of transportation.
This future is not a distant dream but an unfolding reality, and Zhang’s voice and vision beckon us to approach this dawn collectively. The safety and trust in AVs she advocates for are not merely industry goals but societal imperatives, essential for the seamless integration of these marvels into the fabric of everyday life.
Her journey, reflective of both the triumphs and challenges inherent in pioneering such revolutionary technology, continues to inspire and provoke thought on what lies ahead. As Zhang forges onward, her contributions remain a testament to the ingenuity and foresight necessary to ensure that as the wheels of autonomous vehicles turn, they do so in lockstep with humanity’s best interests.
Stay tuned as we continue to explore the depths of Jingyi Zhang’s expertise and experiences, and as we do, let’s contemplate our role in this journey towards a safer, smarter, and more connected world. Join us in anticipating the full conversation, where we delve deeper into the human touch that guides the digital hand in shaping the future of autonomous transportation.