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Naturalness of autonomous vehicles

Problem Statement

Naturalness and simplicity are well known prerequisites of success in product, system and service design. Autonomous vehicles have, however, few precedents in human history and are thus generally unfamiliar to people. It is thus currently difficult if not impossible to establish which autonomous vehicle characteristics and behaviours might be judged to be “natural” by the general public. The proposed research will investigate the physical, psychological and sociological construct of “naturalness”. The new research will build upon previous work performed in relation to current commercial automobiles, and will extend upon the traditional concepts by considering the more anthropomorphic interactions which occur in the case of the new autonomous vehicles.

Programme of work

  • Literature review of the psychophysical, psychological and psychosocial theories of communication between automation and people, with specific emphasis on issues of communication asymmetry, communication appropriateness and implied ethics.
  • Literature review of the product semantics, semiotic symbols, and semiotic communication channels of current automobiles, with specific emphasis on driver expectations and communication stereotypes.
  • Ethnographic and focus group activities to identify the main interfaces where semiotic communication occurs in current automobiles and in the new autonomous vehicles.
  • Ethnographic and focus group activities to analyse existing driver stereotypes about the non-verbal and verbal channels of communication in current automobiles and in the new autonomous vehicles. The activities will specifically probe mental constructs such as intuitiveness, naturalness, trust, control, free will and ethics.
  • Definition of a “naturalness of communication scale” which can be used to measure the naturalness of interaction between people and vehicles. -Selection of “naturalness of communication” scenarios to be analysed by means of experimental testing in the driving simulator.
  • Driving simulator testing of the “naturalness of communication” scenarios with a minimum of 20 individuals.
  • Analysis of the “naturalness of communication” by means of the newly developed scale and in terms of related standard metrics including response time, error analysis, NASA-Task Load Index and emotional Self-Assessment Manikin (SAM).
  • Final reporting.

Value of the research both commercial and academic

The rise of automation is proceeding rapidly and the autonomous vehicle, which constitutes a form of artificial life, will soon be a reality on the streets. The research will address a fundamental issue which must be addressed if the new autonomous vehicles are to be accepted and appreciated by the general public. The research will develop criteria for evaluating whether an interaction with an autonomous vehicle can be considered “natural or not” and will define design guidelines for introducing the criteria into the automotive design process. Recent research has identified the issue of “naturalness” as being one of the main roadblocks to the timely introduction of autonomous vehicles, thus research to address this fundamental issue would seem urgent.

How to apply

If you are interested in applying for the above PhD topic please follow the steps below:

  1. Contact the supervisor by email or phone to discuss your interest and find out if you would be suitable. Supervisor details can be found on this topic page. The supervisor will guide you in developing the topic-specific research proposal, which will form part of your application.
  2. Click on the 'Apply here' button on this page and you will be taken to the relevant PhD course page, where you can apply using an online application.
  3. Complete the online application indicating your selected supervisor and include the research proposal for the topic you have selected.

Good luck!

This is a self funded topic

Brunel offers a number of funding options to research students that help cover the cost of their tuition fees, contribute to living expenses or both. See more information here: The UK Government is also offering Doctoral Student Loans for eligible students, and there is some funding available through the Research Councils. Many of our international students benefit from funding provided by their governments or employers. Brunel alumni enjoy tuition fee discounts of 15%.

Meet the Supervisor(s)

Joseph Giacomin - Joseph Giacomin is a professor of Human Centred Design at Brunel University London where he performs research leading to products, systems and services which are physically, perceptually, cognitively and emotionally intuitive. He has a Ph.D. from Sheffield University in the United Kingdom and both Master's and Bachelor's degrees from the Catholic University of America in Washington D.C. U.S.A.. He has worked for both the American military and the European automobile industry. He has produced more than 120 publications including the books "Humans And Autonomous Vehicles", "Automotive Human Centred Design Methods" and "Thermal - seeing the world through 21st century eyes". He is a member of the editorial boards of Ergonomics and the International Journal Of Vehicle Noise And Vibration (IJVNV). He is a Fellow of the Chartered Institute Of Ergonomics & Human Factors (CIEHF), a Fellow of the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA), a member of the Associazione Per Il Disegno Industriale (ADI) and a member of the Royal Photographic Society (RPS).  Professional qualifications - PhD, MME, BME, F.Erg.S, FRSA, F.ADI