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IIHS recommends having safeguards for automated driving systems

Most new cars today have some partially automated systems that assist the driver in a variety of ways, but these systems still need the driver to be involved at all times. “Unfortunately, the more sophisticated and reliable automation becomes, the more difficult it is for drivers to stay focused on what the vehicle is doing,” says Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) President David Harkey. “That’s why systems should be designed to keep drivers actively engaged.”

That means they need robust methods of monitoring driver engagement and more effective ways of regaining the driver’s attention when it wanders. Designs should also be based on a principle of shared control, and they should have built-in limits that prevent them from being used on roads and under conditions where it isn’t safe to do so, IIHS researchers say.

As part of that philosophy of shared control, partially automated systems shouldn’t change lanes or overtake other vehicles without driver input. They should also be responsive to driver steering input even when automatic lane centering is engaged.

The highest level of automation available in production vehicles today is Level 2, with Level zero being no automation at all up to Level 5, a fully automated vehicle. Level 2 systems continuously control acceleration, braking and steering to keep the vehicle traveling at a set speed in the center of its lane while maintaining a selected following distance from the vehicle ahead. They require the human driver to remain vigilant and ready to intervene in the event that the system encounters a situation it cannot handle.

Despite these limitations, some designs make it too easy for the driver to rely heavily on the system and lack safeguards to make sure he or she remains actively engaged in the driving.

A number of years ago I had the privilege or riding in an AMTRAK engine from Plattsburgh to New York City. I remember vividly the safety system for keeping the train safe in the unlikely event of a problem with the train’s engineer. What basically was in place at that time was a large red button on the engineer’s control panel. The system required the engineer to push the button to tell the system that he was paying attention to operating the train. About 45-60 seconds after a button push, a visual signal that it was “time to push the button again” showed on his panel. If he didn’t push the button within a few seconds, an audible signal sounded in the cab, and if after another pre-set number of seconds passed without a button push, the train would automatically come to a full stop.

One key IIHS recommendation is for a specific series of attention reminders to bring the driver’s focus back to the road, including a visual reminder followed by a more urgent visual reminder and an audible reminder, and even a physical reminder like the shaking or vibrating of the driver seat and pulse braking. If the driver fails to respond, the automated system should deploy the hazard lights and gradually slow the vehicle to a stop. The driver should be locked out from accessing the system for the remainder of the drive.

It is interesting how the recommendations of the IIHS researchers are so similar to the system that was on the AMTRAK engine. But, if that is what it takes to keep drivers involved in the task of driving, then so be it. Safety comes first!

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