Allowing a self-driving car to do the driving may sound like a good idea when you’re stuck in traffic, but actually taking your hands off the steering wheel is another thing entirely. 

The discomfort that many people feel in turning over work to autonomous cars and robots in manufacturing is inspiring new research led by Yunyi Jia, an assistant professor of automotive engineering at Clemson University and the director of Collaborative Robotics and Automation Lab

Yunyi Jia, right, works with a student at the Clemson University International Center for Automotive Research.

Yunyi Jia, right, works with a student at the Clemson University International Center for Automotive Research.

Jia has received a $500,000 CAREER award from the National Science Foundation to study what it will take to make people more comfortable with robots, including autonomous vehicles that drive themselves and collaborative robots involved in advanced manufacturing.  

“What excites me most is that the problem we are working on can impact our daily lives directly and even immediately,” Jia said. “This comfort study can directly impact the user acceptance of autonomous vehicles and collaborative robots in manufacturing.” 

Jia plans to disseminate his findings to companies so they can improve their products or manufacturing processes. 

 Tremendous effort has been put into ensuring autonomous vehicles and robots work safely and efficiently, but getting users to accept them is a critical roadblock to their widespread use, Jia said. 

In his research, Jia is investigating what factors affect human comfort and how to model and quantify such comfort. Then he wants to begin designing technologies and adapting machines to improve the comfort that users feel with autonomous cars and other robots. 

Jia’s research comes as automotive and tech companies work to deploy autonomous vehicles and collaborative robots on a large scale.  

Jia plans to conduct the research using an autonomous driving simulator and an autonomous vehicle built by his team at the Clemson University International Center for Automotive Research. 

For other parts of his research, Jia will have people work with collaborative robots in his lab to assemble items for manufacturing. 

Zoran Filipi, the chair of the Department of Automotive Engineering, said that Jia is ideally suited for the research. 

“Dr. Jia is well positioned for high-impact research, with his over 10-year background in robotics, especially human-robot interactions,” Filipi said. “I congratulate him on this well-deserved award.” 

The long-term collaborator on the project is Johnell Brooks, associate professor of automotive engineering. 

As part of the award, Jia plans to incorporate his findings into undergraduate and graduate courses. He also expects to engage K-12 students in next-generation autonomous machine studies.  

“This is not an easy task to tackle, so we need future engineers,” Jia said.