Lack of tech knowledge is dangerous

Technology in assisting drivers with the task of driving is increasing at a rapid rate. These new features are designed to make driving easier and safer, but drivers’ lack of understanding the limits of this technology appears to counter the increased safety.

Drivers who use partial automation on a regular basis often treat their vehicles as fully self-driving despite widespread warnings and numerous high-profile crash reports, a new study from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety shows.

Most of today’s partial automation systems consist of two main features that are designed to assist in highway driving. Adaptive cruise control keeps the vehicle traveling at a set speed, slowing, and accelerating automatically to maintain a set following distance from the vehicles ahead. At the same time, lane centering provides continuous steering support to help keep the vehicle in the middle of the travel lane. Some systems are also capable of performing lane changes and other advanced maneuvers.

None of the current systems is designed to replace a human driver or to make it safe for a driver to perform other activities that take their focus away from the road. Track tests and real-world crashes have provided ample evidence that today’s partial automation systems struggle to recognize and react to many common driving situations and road features. Previous research has also shown that the high level of assistance they provide makes it hard for drivers to remain engaged and tempts them to turn their attention to other things.

“The big-picture message here is that the early adopters of these systems still have a poor understanding of the technology’s limits,” said IIHS President David Harkey. System design and marketing likely contributed to the misunderstanding. TV commercials for Super Cruise focus on its hands-free capabilities by depicting drivers patting their laps and clapping their hands along with a song, for instance. Evoking the systems used by commercial airplanes, the name Autopilot implies Tesla’s system is more capable than it really is. In contrast, the name ProPILOT Assist suggests that it’s an assistance feature, rather than a replacement for the driver.

To determine how frequent users view this budding technology, IIHS researchers surveyed around 600 Cadillac, Nissan/Infiniti, and Tesla owners (about 200 each) who routinely use their vehicle’s partial automation system. These systems were selected because they reflect the diversity of designs on the market.

Although all three systems use sensors in the steering wheel to detect when the driver’s hands are on it, Cadillac’s Super Cruise is designed to allow drivers to take their hands off the wheel for extended periods, whereas the other two systems require drivers to keep their hands on the wheel essentially all the time. Super Cruise uses a driver-facing camera to monitor whether the driver is looking at the road, and as of 2021 Tesla’s Autopilot does as well.

The three systems use different methods to recall the attention of the driver when it strays as well as different escalation sequences and fail-safe measures. Only Autopilot and Super Cruise include a lockout feature that disables the system and prevents drivers from immediately restarting it as a final step in their escalation sequences.

Perhaps this article will generate some feedback from owners with these features.


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