Sun, Aug 13, 2017 - Page 7 News List

Robots are ruining people’s driving skills

The freedom afforded by semi-autonomous aids has invited abuse by distracted drivers

By Keith Naughton  /  Bloomberg

Illustration: June Hsu

If your car can hit the brakes in an emergency and check your blind spots, will that make you a worse driver? Increasingly, automakers are worrying that it may.

Driver-assist technology, which keeps cars in their lanes, maintains a safe distance from other vehicles, warns of unseen traffic and slams the brakes to avoid rear-end crashes, is rapidly spreading from luxury cars to everyday Hondas, Nissans and Chevys. However, these automated aids aimed at improving safety are having an unintended consequence: They are degrading driving skills.

“There are lots of concerns about people checking out, and we are trying to monitor that now,” Insurance Institute for Highway Safety president Adrian Lund said. “Everything we do that makes the driving task a little easier means that people are going to pay a little bit less attention when they’re driving.”

For carmakers trying to address deteriorating driver skills, the stakes are immense. US roadway deaths jumped 14 percent over the last two years, with more than 40,000 people dying in crashes last year. While speeding and more congested roadways bear some of the blame, distraction is another key culprit. Data released by the US federal government show manipulation of handheld devices while driving, including texting or surfing the Web, has been on the rise.

The semi-autonomous features that are the building blocks of tomorrow’s driverless cars were designed to compensate for inattentiveness behind the wheel. Instead, they may be enabling drivers to place too much faith in the new technology.

The auto industry is “terrified” about the unwanted side effects of their popular new features, and companies are scrambling to find ways to keep drivers engaged rather than glued to their smartphones, said Mark Wakefield, managing director and head of the automotive practice at consultant AlixPartners.

General Motors is installing eye-tracking technology on the Super Cruise feature coming to Cadillac models later this year, which allows drivers to take their hands off the wheel, but requires watching the road. Nissan Motor’s ProPilot Assist keeps the car centered and brings it to a stop in its lane if the driver goes more than 30 seconds without grabbing the wheel. Tesla last year implemented limits on drivers’ ability to go hands-free while using the company’s Autopilot system.

“You can be conservative in your design and emphasize safety over convenience to protect the consumer from themselves, which clearly is needed, but the whole industry is not going to do that,” Wakefield said. “So you’ll be right, but you didn’t sell a car.”

Toyota researchers recognize that the new technology is changing the way people drive and has initiated studies with major universities to learn how driving habits might evolve.

“What are the new risky behaviors going to be?” Toyota’s Collaborative Safety Research Center director Chuck Gulash said in an interview. “Is it going to be people testing their vehicles to the limits? Or showing off to their neighbors?”

Consumers recognize the perils of relinquishing control, even if they do not always heed their own advice. Fifty-seven percent said in an informal survey of 847 visitors to researcher Kelley Blue Book’s car-shopping Web site, conducted for Bloomberg News last month, that driver-assist technologies will eventually erode driving skills.

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