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

“Without question, technology is making drivers lazier and less attentive,” Kelley Blue Book group managing editor Mike Harley said. “Most of today’s digital ‘driver assistance’ features are designed to overlay basic driving skills, which relaxes the driver’s sense of responsibility.”

A University of Michigan study showed that this may already be the case. The school recently conducted research for an automaker concerned with how people are using blind-spot detection systems that alert drivers with chimes and warning lights when another car is in a difficult-to-see area. The study found a significant increase in drivers failing to look over their shoulder to check for themselves when changing lanes.

“The more they are exposed to these systems, the more they trust the systems,” said Shan Bao, an associate research scientist at the university’s Transportation Research Institute, who conducted the study. In emergency situations, “they’ll trust the systems more than they’ll trust themselves.”

Surveys have shown consumers are fond of semi-autonomous features because they take the stress out of stop-and-go traffic and alleviate the monotony of long trips. However, the freedom afforded by the new aids has invited abuse by drivers who treat the technology as if it is fully capable of taking control, with little or no human input necessary. YouTube videos have emerged showing daredevil drivers hopping in the back seat as they trick the technology to believe they have hands on the wheel.

A US federal investigation into the fatality last year in a Tesla Model S traveling in semi-autonomous Autopilot mode showed the driver had his hands on the wheel for just 25 seconds in the final 37 minutes before crashing into a semi. Tesla, which was cleared of responsibility by safety regulators, has modified Autopilot to require more driver input.

“At a very basic level, consumers don’t have any idea of how these systems work because they’re all named something different, and they all function differently,” American Automobile Association (AAA) automotive engineering and industry relations director Greg Brannon said.

Although AAA is urging automakers and regulators to come up with standard terms and parameters for semi-autonomous features, that conflicts with automakers desire to develop and market unique systems and seek an edge over competitors.

Some manufacturers are pushing the boundaries of safety to make their cars appear more advanced by fielding systems that allow drivers to keep their hands off the wheel for too long before a chime and dashboard light remind them to take hold again, Wakefield said.

“The idea that you can take your hands off the wheel for 15 seconds and the driver is still in control, that’s not realistic,” Lund said. “If they’re taking their hands off for 15 seconds, then they’re doing some other things.”

It is difficult for drivers to understand what driver-assist systems can and cannot do because automakers sometimes send mixed signals. The seldom-read owner’s manual takes a cautious approach to explaining the aids because corporate lawyers water down wording to avoid exposing automakers to legal liability, Brannon said.

Another risk is that drivers become so accustomed to the aids that they forget when getting into older vehicles or rental cars that are not equipped with the technology, Lund said.

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