Cars could get more dangerous before they get safer

Automated driving features are supposed to make cars safer. But in the hands of drivers who put too much faith in these systems or simply don’t know how to use them, they could instead make the roads more dangerous.

Why is this important: Many new cars come with automated driver assistance features that people don’t understand, or worse, think they understand and then abuse it with potentially dangerous consequences.

Reality check: No, your Tesla cannot drive you home on Autopilot after a night out at the bar.

  • Some drivers also become less careful behind the wheel, or drive more aggressively, when they think the robot is supporting them.

Driving the news: A new study from the AAA Foundation for Road Safety found that even after six months of use, people could not fully master the advanced driver assistance systems.

  • “This research suggests that today’s sophisticated automotive technology requires more than trial-and-error learning to master,” said Jake Nelson, director of road safety research and advocacy at AAA.
  • “You can’t fake it until you hit highway speeds,” he said, calling for more rigorous driver training.

Gaps in driver understanding of new technologies can have serious safety implications.

  • The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is investigating a series of fatal crashes involving Tesla vehicles equipped with Autopilot.
  • One of the questions is whether the design of the technology encourages driver misuse.
  • Safety advocates also claim that marketing terms such as “autopilot” and “professional pilot” breed driver complacency.

Between the lines: Researchers in the field of human factors – how people interact with machines – say there isn’t enough attention paid to the human element of automated driving.

  • As cars become more automated, the driver has less to do behind the wheel.
  • Instead, drivers are relegated to the role of monitor, whose job is to constantly watch for technological failures.
  • The problem is that people aren’t particularly well-suited for such tedious work, says assistant professor Michael Nees, a psychological engineer at Lafayette College.
  • They tend to drift away when automated driving features are activated and need 40 seconds to regain control of the car and resume normal driving duties.

What they say : “It’s amazing how far automated driving technology has come and how fast it is, but even if it’s 99% reliable, that 1% multiplied by millions of people and miles and miles of roads will result in a not insignificant number incidents,” Nees tells Axios.

What to watch: Over the next two years, automakers will begin to introduce even more automated systems, allowing drivers to check and read a book or watch a video in traffic jams.

  • The potential danger comes from “mode confusion” when it’s time for the car to hand over the driving responsibility to the human, Nees says.
  • “There is a real risk that you will have situations where the driver no longer knows what mode the vehicle is in. If there is any ambiguity, you could have consequences.”

The paradox of vehicle automation is that the more reliable it becomes, the less prepared drivers are in the event of an unavoidable breakdown.

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