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Nissan Brings on an Anthropologist for Autonomous Technology

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Melissa Cefkin, Nissan Anthropologist

Automakers are always citing human error as the reason that we need self-driving cars. Although our ways of driving aren’t always the best, they have definitely influenced traffic patterns in several situations. For example, cars rarely go in the correct order at four-way stops, and sometimes in driving situations it’s necessary to wave at another car or pedestrian to tell them that it is safe for them to go. When autonomous cars in testing have gotten in accidents, it seems as if many times it is because they are not acting like a human driver would.

To help try and solve this problem, Nissan has brought in an anthropologist, Melissa Cefkin, to assist in programming how an autonomous driving computer thinks. Cefkin is the principal scientist and design anthropologist at the Nissan Research Center in Silicon Valley. Her special field of study is actually ethnography, the study of cultures and individuals from the point of view of the subject. In the past, she has worked with IBM, Sapient Corp. and the Institute for Research on Learning.

Most of Cefkin’s work is focused on Nissan’s third piece of the autonomy puzzle, which would allow a vehicle to successfully navigate surface streets. It was originally stated that this technology will be available in 2020 as a partner to the ProPilot system.

It is Cefkin’s goal to develop a vehicle that will be able to make judgment calls like a human would by picking up on environmental signals and those given by pedestrians, other cars, and cyclists. Then the vehicle needs to be able to communicate those decisions with the world outside of the car.

Cefkin is excited that Nissan is involving anthropology from the beginning of the technology, instead of building a system and having it changed later to understand humans. “What’s different for us is we are working at the heart, the guts of the core technology and bringing insights and the kind of understanding that we have about human practices and human experience right into the fundamental design of the system,” she said.

We can’t wait to see a car that will be able to decipher four-way stop signs. We all have been driving for years, and we know those are the absolute worst.