The Newest ‘Enabler’ Of Dangerous Driving: Partially Automated Systems

Many 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. But partial automation systems available in today’s market aren’t meant to replace the human driver, or to make it safe for drivers to perform other activities that take their focus away from the road.

For many, the technology enables dangerous multitasking behind the wheel.

Those are the main findings of a new study released on Tuesday by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a nonprofit financed by the insurance industry.

“The big-picture message here is that the early adopters of these systems still have a poor understanding of the technology’s limits,” David Harkey, president of the Insurance Institute, said in a statement. “But we also see clear differences among the three owner populations. It’s possible that system design and marketing are adding to these misconceptions.”

Most of today’s partial automation systems consist of two main features: adaptive cruise control, which keeps the vehicle traveling at a set speed, and lane centering, which monitors the vehicle’s position within the driving lane.

For the study, researchers gathered responses from roughly 600 owners who routinely used Cadillac Super Cruise, Tesla Autopilot, or Nissan ProPILOT Assist in their vehicles. Regular users of those three systems said they were more likely to do things that involve taking their hands off the wheel or their eyes off the road to perform non-driving-related activities like texting or eating while using their partial automation systems than while driving unassisted.

Among respondents to the survey, 53% of Super Cruise users, 42% of Autopilot users, and 12 % of ProPILOT Assist users said that they were comfortable treating their vehicles as fully self-driving.

Around 40% of users of Autopilot and Super Cruise, the two systems with lockout features, reported triggering a “lockout” of the technology at some point, which occurs when a driver fails to respond to attention warnings.

Also, Super Cruise users said they were the most likely and ProPILOT users the least likely to say that an activity they think is unsafe to do when the system is switched off is safe to do when the system is switched on, according to the survey.

“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,” the report noted. “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.”

System design, demographic factors like gender and age, and marketing were likely contributors to the differences in behaviors reported. For example, the name Autopilot, which evokes systems used by commercial airplanes, implies Tesla’s system is more capable than it is, but the name ProPILOT Assist denotes that the feature was designed to help, not replace, the driver.

The results of the survey underscored the importance of robust, multifaceted safeguards, like attention reminders and system lockouts, to keep drivers engaged while using the technology, which suggest that they have the potential to make it safer to use partial automation, Alexandra Mueller, a research scientist at the Insurance Institute and the lead author of the study, said in a statement.

“Many of these drivers said they had experiences where they had to suddenly take over the driving because the automation did something unexpected, sometimes while they were doing something they were not supposed to,” she said.

For more information about the study, click here.

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