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Canberrans to be recruited in trial of face-tracking technology in driverless cars

Kirsten Lawson

Published: May 19 2017 - 8:33PM

Up to 40 Canberrans will be recruited to test face-tracking technology in autonomous cars, in a trial funded by the ACT government.

Seeing Machines, a company listed on the London Stock Exchange but headquartered in Canberra, specialises in face-tracking technology in vehicles, used largely to date in the mining and trucking industries to ensure drivers are staying awake and focused. The technology is to be commercialised in cars in the United States from September.

On Friday Chief Minister Andrew Barr announced $1.35 million for a trial run by Seeing Machines that will look specifically at the moment where drivers of autonomous cars must take full control again - coming off highways, or when road conditions change.

Seeing Machines executive chairman Ken Kroeger said little was known about that transition from autonomous driving to taking control of the car - including whether it took five seconds or 30 seconds for drivers to refocus, and how it differed from driver to driver.

The research team would recruit drivers of different ages and with different sex, skin colour, use of make up and hair to capture the complexity of human faces. They would be given an autonomous car to drive for two weeks at a time and the technology would read their reactions. The research was using face signals and reactions to look at how quickly a driver can assume control of the car when required.

The data on driver behaviour would help improve technology to make driverless cars safer, and help governments make laws to govern the use of driverless cars.

The cars used in the two-year trail would be semi-autonomous, using external sensors such as camera and radar to sense the road and to slow down for other traffic. They would be capable of self-driving most of the time, but legally the driver is in control and must keep holding the steering wheel.

  Posted by Kirsten Lawson on Thursday, May 18, 2017

Start me up: Chief Minister Andrew Barr takes the wheel of a Tesla X at the bus depot in Kingston on Friday. While the car is autonomous, it cannot drive itself off-road.

Mr Barr said the trial could be done under existing road laws in Canberra.

Seeing Machines grew out of the Australian National University 15 years ago, and the trial is being done jointly with the ANU and the University of Canberra. University of Canberra researchers are looking at the health and social impacts of driverless cars, and the ANU is working on data analytics and computer vision.

The Seeing Machines eye and face tracking technology, which measures data such as blink rate and eyelid aperture and precisely where a person is looking, doesn't require drivers to wear any sensors. It is is used in mining and trucking to wake drivers up when it senses them losing focus.

Former Labor senator, now ACT government local industry advocate, Kate Lundy will chair an autonomous vehicle trial governance and planning committee.

Professor Kristen Pammer​ from the ANU research school of psychology, said autonomous vehicle technology is developing at an incredibly fast rate, but one of the gaps was knowing how and when humans should interact with them – and when they should regain control.

"We'll be trying to understand whether we can use metrics that can read a person's facial and body language to determine if they are fatigued or drunk and should not able to regain control over the vehicle – or perhaps when a human should be able to."

Professor Robert Mahony from the ANU Research School of Engineering said the project would help the ANU become leaders in autonomous vehicle technology.

Mr Barr said the trial would be funded in the June 6 budget.

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