Let’s say you’re cruising along, happily asleep on your way to
work, when suddenly your 2026 Tesla starts swerving wildly.
Blinking awake mid-commotion, you’re filled with a panic you
haven’t felt in years.
Autopilot has failed. You are now the driver.
Driverless cars won’t reach consumers for another decade or so,
but engineers have already started planning for these worst-case
scenarios. Researchers are currently trying to understand how
humans will react if their car’s trusted technology goes
The goal is to equip cars with safety mechanisms that
support people’s reflexes to stay alive.
Sarah Eldabaja, a civil engineer from Ohio University, is one
such researcher. She’s well aware that while driverless cars
are supposed to be just that — driverless — humans will still
play a vital role in emergency situations.
“Our main question is, how do drivers interact with the system
during emergencies?” Eldabaja tells Tech Insider. “What’s the
driver going to do? How do they react? How long will it take them
To answer those questions, she and her team plan to conduct
a series of experiments this fall, studying the behavior of
approximately 50 people in labs that look like
arcades. In the tests, researchers will surround the
front half of a Ford Focus with projector
screens that simulate a highway driving scene.
Hydraulics beneath the simulator will mimic real bumps and
In the beginning, the participants will operate the car manually,
just to get used to the system. After a few minutes the automated
system will kick in, at which point they can do whatever they
want: read, check Twitter, sleep.
After about half an hour, however, the car’s autopilot will
suddenly disengage, the same way your 2026 Tesla could
betray you. For Eldabaja, that’s when the fun starts.
Her team will collect reaction data in the immediate aftermath of
the malfunction. The researchers will monitor people’s stress
levels, heart rate, eye movements, and track other general
behaviors like whether they instinctively slam on the brakes or
veer off the road.
“We’re trying to answer those questions so we can avoid those
kinds of things happening,” she says.
Ideally, the data will pinpoint which systems need fail-safe
mechanisms the most. For example, if Eldabaja finds that people
prefer to brake instead of veer when the autopilot system
crashes, then engineers could program the car’s
brakes to automatically engage in that situation,
thereby assisting drivers before their brains have time to
talk to their feet.
The tests will also reveal how long it takes for drivers to
correct a swerving car. If people immediately snap to
attention, there may be little need to install any back-up
systems. But if drivers are slow to get back in their lane
or adjust their speed, that could be a sign they need extra help.
In that case, perhaps the car could locate a lane on
its own, even if the full autopilot function is broken.
Eldabaja acknowledges that in the distant future, driverless cars
will probably be so sophisticated that they rarely run into such
catastrophic scenarios. And even if they do, other cars will
likely be smart enough to sense the car’s movements and get out
of the way.
But until then, she stresses the need for a happy medium between
human and machine. Even the world’s smartest computers still get
“Some people think we can send a 5- or 6-year-old child out by
themselves, but I think we need to find the middle ground,” she
says. “We need people to trust the system so we can use it, so we
can see the benefits, but we still need to be prepared for what’s