IIHS Study Underlines the Perils of Driver Disengagement

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It turns out there’s a name for the false sense of security provided by modern driving aids. According to researchers with the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s AgeLab, the phenomenon is called “driver disengagement” and it’s assumed to be a contributing factor to roadways fatalities. The duo recently published a rather basic study examining how evolving automotive technologies might be eroding safety under the guise of progress.

Since we’ve been onto the perils and shortcomings of advanced driving aids since their introduction, it also provides us with another stellar opportunity to gloat. Heck, our criticisms go back far enough to predate any reputable research on the matter. We were just bitter cranks then, annoyed that the systems seemed unworthy of our trust despite constantly demanding it. But the IIHS said its latest testing found motorists frequently lose focus while utilizing features like adaptive cruise control and lane-keeping. This issue reportedly worsens the more familiar drivers become with the systems, which would be fine if they could be counted on for total effectiveness. Sadly, there’s been more than enough testing for us to know that’s not the case.

Researchers wanted to know exactly how complacent drivers could get by splitting subjects into two groups of 10. One group was given a Land Rover Range Rover Evoque equipped with adaptive cruise control (ACC), which automatically keeps the vehicle traveling at speeds selected by the driver while maintaining a pre-established following distance with the car ahead. The other group drove a Volvo S90 with both ACC and Pilot Assist — Volvo’s “partially automated” system that combines adaptive cruising with lane-centering technology that attempts to keep the car positioned safely in its lane.

Initially, researchers noticed no difference in the subjects’ driving habits. By the end of the month, however, the situation had changed dramatically. Drivers of the S90 were found to be 12 times more likely to remove both hands from the wheel than they were just 30 days earlier. Those in the Land Rover also saw their attentiveness degrade and checked their phones more often. But the overall increase in dangerous behavior was cited as less than that of those driving the Volvo.

“Drivers were more than twice as likely to show signs of disengagement after a month of using Pilot Assist compared with the beginning of the study,” said IIHS Senior Research Scientist Ian Reagan. “Compared with driving manually, they were more than 12 times as likely to take both hands off the wheel after they’d gotten used to how the lane centering worked.”

From IIHS:

Pilot Assist and similar systems like Tesla’s Autopilot, Cadillac’s Super Cruise and Mercedes-Benz’s Intelligent Drive are not designed to replace the driver. They have trouble negotiating many common road features, so the driver must be in control at all times. However, with the automation managing steering and speed — quite well in some cases — it’s easy for the driver to lose focus.

“This study supports our call for more robust ways of ensuring the driver is looking at the road and ready to take the wheel when using [SAE] Level 2 systems,” says Reagan. “It shows some drivers may be getting lulled into a false sense of security over time.”

The group made it clear that it now has real concerns regarding advanced driving aids and reminded readers that it previously issued recommendations for improving these features. The European New Car Assessment Program (Euro NCAP) has also introduced a rating system for driver assistance packages that attempts to quantify how adept the systems are. Unfortunately, the general consensus is that drivers still need to maintain maximum awareness, and the vehicles themselves could be improved by constantly reminding the driver to stay in the game. The European Commission is even pushing legislation that would require manufacturers to implement elaborate systems that monitor occupants.

We’re less keen on the notion of having automobiles habitually annoy motorists, however. Any system that requires drivers to be surveilled by their car’s onboard camera and hit with chimes reminding them to drive every two minutes doesn’t sound like it’s worth a damn. We would rather see advanced driving aids scaled back and submitted to testing protocols proving their effectiveness. This isn’t a problem with those behind the wheel, it’s a fundamental flaw in the features being offered by automakers. Don’t blame the person who bought the car for the misleading marketing used by the manufacturer to sell these features.

[Image: IIHS]

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