22 January 2020
Despite the advancement of technologies, we are still far from the days when fully autonomous vehicles can solve every problem in today’s traffic situations. Photo: Reuters
Despite the advancement of technologies, we are still far from the days when fully autonomous vehicles can solve every problem in today’s traffic situations. Photo: Reuters

Why autonomous vehicle systems need human-centric approach

Currently the trending concept behind autonomous vehicles is removing the human and focusing on the machine. But I have a different view. After 12 years at NASA researching autonomous systems for Mars, and seven years at Nissan leading work on autonomous vehicles in Silicon Valley, I believe that an autonomous system without people as a central component will be pretty much useless.

As the Hong Kong government targets a 30 percent adoption of connected and autonomous vehicles (CAV), and begins testing autonomous technologies, it’s crucial to take a human-centric perspective to reap the real rewards of this technology. Let me explain why.

Imagine you just bought your first autonomous vehicle. On Nathan Road, you take your hands off the wheel. But in the narrow streets of Tsim Sha Tsui, as subtle hand signals become the conduit for people to cross while cars come at all directions, the situation complicates. Your human instinct and experience kick in to navigate, and quickly you grab the wheel.

Scenarios like this will be increasingly familiar. As driving and cultural rules differ between countries, humans are central to the process of new autonomous driving technologies. These considerations should be keenly applied in developing future autonomous ecosystems on Hong Kong’s streets.


We are still far from the days when fully autonomous vehicles can realistically solve every problem in today’s traffic situations—a lesson we can take from the pages of modern air travel. Even a hundred years into flying, we still require pilots and air traffic controllers to assess situations and make decisions that machines cannot. The concepts of human understanding and communication, and our ability to react in making last-minute judgment calls while driving, are still required.

These same principles apply to autonomous systems – to work, a human in the loop is needed to help systems ‘learn’ and react to unpredictable situations, in a way only humans can. We need to look at driving for humans, by humans.

As Hong Kong gradually tests autonomous technologies, thousands of real-life impediments such as unexpected pedestrian traffic or crowded pick-up and drop-off points, will come into play. Successfully incorporating autonomous driving into current traffic infrastructure and driving systems is a lengthy challenge that requires considering and taking in its central users – humans.

If in Hong Kong, then anywhere

Given the density of cars and people, Hong Kong is a city that makes it challenging for autonomous vehicles to operate, which also makes it an ideal testbed with real-world conditions for self-driving. Only through solutions that consider multiple facets, including structural, social and technological considerations, can autonomous driving be comprehensively incorporated into society.

In Hong Kong, this also means integrating these vehicles into road infrastructure, with human-centric design. It entails retaining autonomy by allowing the vehicle to take quick action such as applying an emergency brake, while enabling humans to make safety critical decisions at complex junctions such as the more accident-prone intersections along Argyle Street or at the pick-up point of the airport.

Letting go of the wheel

To socialize autonomous driving into Hong Kong, government investment in infrastructure, policies and programs is needed to go beyond the lab to adapt the technology to everyday situations specific to the city’s context—what is socially acceptable in Hong Kong is different from that of Tokyo or the Silicon Valley. In return, however, autonomous driving offers city dwellers such as Hongkongers social benefits, such as more effective and productive commutes which can lead to economic macro rewards, including increased GDP.

As such, not only will innovative transportation solutions continue to be a crucial need in the face of rising urbanization, it is also positioned to be an economic driver to cities of the future. For Hong Kong, the opportunity to be an early adopter of autonomous driving in the region is real and now. It is only up to us, to seize it by letting go of the wheel.

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Chief Technology Director, Nissan Research Center Silicon Valley