The Future Is (Almost) Here

Some drivers overestimate the capabilities of autonomous vehicle safety features

October 26, 2021 Photo

We drive in interesting times. A paradigm shift in driving technology hovers on the horizon, and it might end the era of human drivers. But, for most of us, those self-driving vehicles will not be parked in our driveways anytime soon.

There are real-world tests of autonomous driving systems going on around us everyday, but they are, as of yet, in experimental phases. And while the latest vehicle models are stocked with a slew of microprocessor-driven sensors and tech, they do not eliminate human input from the driving task.

Despite that reality, there are consumers who expect that the latest vehicle models will take the driving burden from them, which means there is a dangerous knowledge gap between driverless-car hype and actual vehicle capabilities. That lack of understanding can lead to crashes, injuries, and damage claims.

Recent research from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) shows that driver understanding of advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) does not keep up with the evolution of those technologies. The distinction among the many systems in the ADAS array is this: Some warn of danger, while others take action—but only limited action—when a sensor recognizes a threat. Notifications and interventions under the ADAS umbrella include: forward collision warning, lane departure warning, crash imminent braking, dynamic brake support, blind-spot warning, rear cross traffic, pedestrian automatic emergency braking, automatic high beams, backup cameras, automatic crash notification, adaptive cruise control, and lane keeping/centering assistance.

Crash imminent braking, for example, identifies a hazard and engages the brakes to slow forward speed in order to avoid a collision. Lane keeping/centering minimizes lane drift. There is only one optional technology among the typical ADAS offerings that takes a driver a shade closer to a driverless car experience. With parking assist, the vehicle’s tech will take over the maneuvers to complete the parking act, but the wise car owner will stand ready to intervene should the situation warrant quick action. Think of ADAS more as a driving aid; not as a chauffeur.

A keen-eyed and attentive driver does not need algorithms to identify and avoid most external threats on the road. In fact, IIHS studies show that drivers can be irritated by the automatic interventions when they feel they are driving safely and appropriately for their circumstance. Audible warnings for lane departures and over corrections for lane centering on roadway curves earn frequent complaints from ADAS users. Some vehicle owners may even elect to disengage those systems rather than adapt to their usage.

Typically, new car buyers can choose a vehicle loaded with ADAS, or select models with more modest selections of driver-assistance systems. Whatever the choice, they will face a learning curve of system capabilities, operational eccentricities, and maintenance. Another complication to ADAS adoption is deciphering the expanded icon collection that flashes on dashboard screens as systems activate. Of course, a vehicle user manual will cover the onboard ADAS tech, but few owners ever read them. Increasingly, automakers are opting to produce web-versions only, which make those lengthy and convoluted guides even less likely to be tapped for guidance.

New-car owners may seek other online resources for information, but, again, such effort applies to the minority of buyers. Car salesmen and service staff at dealerships may provide insights to ADAS operations, however, such follow-up is more scattershot than dealership policy. Thus, it is common for a new-car owner to drive away with only a vague sense of the vehicle’s capabilities.

A recent claim underscores the disconnect between consumer assumptions about ADAS and the reality of driving with onboard driver safety systems, and may presage a growing incidence of similar accidents. Less than a week after a family purchased and took possession of a newest-model Japanese import family van, the vehicle was totaled in a crash. The mother of the family had loaded her children in the back of the van and her mother in the front passenger seat for a local trip. She engaged the vehicle in drive and set off.

Unfortunately, she expected the vehicle to continue on its path even though she unlatched her safety belt, turned around in the driver’s seat, and started looking for a dropped toy. She assumed Lane Keep Assist would maintain the course without her. The van exited the roadway and crashed into a concrete barrier. She did not realize that by removing her foot from the accelerator, the van’s slowing speed would deactivate Lane Keep Assist. Fortunately, the injuries were minor, but the vehicle was a total loss.

To steer safely through this evolving vehicle technology, buyers will need to distinguish between aspirational (and emotive) product names and the real way these tech-powered vehicles operate. In Tesla’s luxury lines, the active safety features support self-driving capabilities called Autopilot. The company’s product information stresses the requirement of constant driver vigilance when operating the vehicle, but some Tesla owners take the Autopilot moniker seriously and have overestimated their vehicle’s autonomous capabilities with tragic results.

Beyond that, advertising a driving console with cinematic displays and game-playing capabilities, as Tesla does for the Model S Plaid, pushes the notion that front-seat occupants can take their attention away from the driving task in order to engage with gaming and video-based entertainment.

It is clear that adopting ADAS technology will prepare drivers to transition to autonomous vehicles when they debut, but, in the meantime, drivers cannot cede total control of their vehicles to microprocessors with a hope that they will travel safely to their destinations. A fully driverless technology is not here yet, and even when it becomes available, chances are most drivers with healthy self-protective instincts will still keep their eyes on the road. 

About The Authors
Jesse A. Garcia

Jesse A. Garcia is a managing engineer at Peter R. Thom and Associates Inc., a national firm of consulting automotive engineers.

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