AAA warns automated driver assist don’t mean safer cars, drivers still have to pay attention

Drivers have a big responsibility, they’re operating a big heavy machine, capable of high speeds, that can do a lot of damage when it hits something or someone.  But, looking around at fellow drivers, it seems most of them abdicate their responsibility and go on with distracted driving behaviors, such as putting on makeup, talking on the phone, eating meals, etc, while driving.  Pedestrians and bicyclists sometimes suffer grave injury or fatalities due to distracted drivers, in addition to the toll of car-car collisions.

I’ll be the first to admit imperfection – I had one extremely stupid traffic accident where I was distracted by something and didn’t notice the cars in front of me had stopped.  My car was totaled and the occupants of the car I hit were sent to the hospital.  I’ve also been the victim of an inattentive driver – at that time I worked as a tow truck driver, and while preparing to tow a car in the middle of the road another driver failed to see my tow truck lights.  When he slammed into the car, I, unfortunately, was standing at the point of impact.  Both cars were totaled, and the impact pushed both the car and my tow truck forward by six feet.  Crushed in the impact, my legs were badly broken, I could have bled to death on the road, I spent 3 months in recovery before returning to normal life, and it was 9 months before I started walking unaided.

Why I bring this up is that AAA issued a press release today saying that while advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) offer the potential to make driving safer, it’s not a panacea.  Drivers may not make good use of the systems because they don’t fully understand the operation and limitations of these technologies.  Although adaptive cruise control and autonomous braking systems
performed as described in the owner’s manuals, motorists unfamiliar with
these devices may not be prepared for instances when the technology
does not engage.

Both Nissan and Tesla Automotive have announced plans to offer cars with some degree of autonomous driving capability by 2020.   Current cars have systems which are just a stepping stone towards more complete automated driving systems.

“There are significant benefits to this technology, but these systems
have limitations, and multi-tasking drivers could be caught off guard by
relying too heavily on safety features,” says John Nielsen, managing
director, AAA Automotive Engineering and Repair. “The benefits of these
systems could easily be outweighed if motorists are not familiar with
their operation or lessen focus behind the wheel. Technology is not a
substitute for an alert, engaged driver.”

Notice how this quote talks about “multi-tasking drivers” who are “caught off guard”.

Reading between the lines ….

How likely is it for car drivers owning cars with automated collision avoidance, to go even more deeply into distracted driving behavior, and then get into even worse situations?  There’s an apocryphal story of a dude who’d just bought an RV (recreational vehicle) with cruise control, who got the RV onto the highway, then set the cruise control, and walked back to the kitchen to make a sandwich, thinking the RV would drive itself.  Of course the RV didn’t do so, and there was a horrid crash.

As I said above, car drivers have the ultimate responsibility of operating their vehicle safely, but typical car drivers abdicate that responsibility.

Are the car companies, by adding automated driving assist features, acting as an “enabler” of distracted driving behavior?

How often do you hear someone say they zoned out while driving and don’t remember how they got to their destination, or maybe they missed a turnoff while zoned out, etc?  That’s distracted driving, folks, and that’s a traffic accident waiting to happen.

AAA describes these driver assist systems this way:  These systems can alert a driver to a potential crash, adjust the
vehicle’s pace to maintain a pre-set speed, and even brake independently
to avoid a collision.

This means that when emergency situations arise, the car will automatically start braking and slowing down to avoid a collision.  If the driver is busy texting friends on facebook, or eating a big mac, or something, and the car suddenly starts braking, what’s going to happen?

The car industry, and government regulators, are pushing for this sort of vision.  For all vehicles on the road to have some kind of automated computerized driving capability to improve driving safety, and to pack cars on the road more densely.  If it works out driving should be safer, and less land space will have to be wasted on highways.

The AAA did testing with simulations on a test-track, which we should look at through the lens of “do these automated systems work, yet.”

AAA found the current driver assistance systems are imperfect.  They don’t recognize all vehicle types, such as motorcycles.  Features to maintain following distance work best when the cars are extremely close together, more densely packed than AAA’s recommended “three second rule.”

The “three second rule” is because human reaction time dictates that cars must be spread out on the road.  Theoretically, computers can react to emergencies and brake more quickly than a human, and therefore cars could be packed more tightly on the road if computers were to take over maintaining following distances.  If, that is, the system worked correctly.

If the system doesn’t work well, yet it encourages drivers to follow dangerously close to other cars, and an emergency arises where the car fails to brake, but drivers are “asleep” because the car is doing the driving, there will be traffic collisions.

AAA gives these recommendations:

Automakers enhance communication to make clear and obvious the limitations of these systems.
Motorists become thoroughly familiar with all the technology in
their car including advanced driver assistance systems before operating
the vehicle.

I have grave doubts.  The typical drivers who don’t even read the owners manual are unlikely to try and familiarize themselves with anything.  They’re just going to head off on the road, assuming the driver assist features will take care of everything, and maybe die in agony, bleeding to death or worse, because they thought the car would take care of them while they browsed facebook while driving.

About David Herron

David Herron is a writer and software engineer living in Silicon Valley. He primarily writes about electric vehicles, clean energy systems, climate change, peak oil and related issues. When not writing he indulges in software projects and is sometimes employed as a software engineer. David has written for sites like PlugInCars and TorqueNews, and worked for companies like Sun Microsystems and Yahoo.

About David Herron

David Herron is a writer and software engineer living in Silicon Valley. He primarily writes about electric vehicles, clean energy systems, climate change, peak oil and related issues. When not writing he indulges in software projects and is sometimes employed as a software engineer. David has written for sites like PlugInCars and TorqueNews, and worked for companies like Sun Microsystems and Yahoo.

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