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Partial driving automation comes with its own dangers

With so much open road in Western Colorado, many drivers spend more time behind the wheel than they care to. For this and other reasons, the future promise of fully autonomous vehicles sounds appealing to many. It would be nice to focus on work or entertainment and leave the driving up your vehicle.

The United States hasn’t seen self-driving cars hit the market yet, but automakers are offering features that assist drivers, correct for human error and automate certain functions of the driving experience. This is a steppingstone between fully manual driving and fully autonomous driving, but the transition is not necessarily a smooth one. Studies are beginning to show that drivers may be placing too much trust into these driver-assistance systems, putting themselves and others at risk in the process.

Study shows driver disengagement when using safety tech

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety recently released a study showing that drivers are more likely to disengage from the task of driving if their vehicles are equipped with certain driver assist features and if they (the drivers) have become accustomed to those features. For the study, researchers gave participants vehicles equipped with either one or two safety features.

Group one was given vehicles equipped with adaptive cruise control (ACC). This feature keeps the vehicles traveling at a predetermined speed while also maintaining a safe following distance behind other automobiles.

Group two was given vehicles with ACC and an additional feature known as Pilot Assist, which keeps vehicles centered in the lane. In short, these vehicles could both maintain a safe following distance and prevent drivers from drifting out of their lane.

Researchers wanted to determine whether partial automation technology would have an impact on driver engagement. Signs of disengagement would include things like taking both hands off the wheel, checking one’s phone, and fidgeting with non-essential controls on the vehicle’s console (such as music settings).

When the study began, participants were largely unfamiliar with the driver-assist features. As such, they mostly remained engaged in the task of driving. As the month-long study wore on, however, drivers in both groups became more comfortable using the tech and became significantly more likely to disengage. The results were especially stark for drivers in group two, who became 12 times more likely to take both hands off the wheel because they were comfortable with lane-centering technology.

Is this technology safe? Are drivers ready to transition?

Other studies have shown that driver-assist technology is useful but has clear limitations. As such, drivers need to treat these features are merely aids rather than automation. That means staying engaged with the task of driving and being ready to take full control at any moment. Because of the way that such features have been advertised, many drivers may have a false sense of security about the effectiveness and reliability about partial automation.

If you drive a car with these advanced safety features, please know that they may not be as reliable as advertised. Ultimately, it is up to you to ensure that you understand the limits of the technology in your vehicle and to adapt accordingly.

Image of Attorney Chadwick McGrady