Autonomous Features Are Making Everyone a Worse Driver

Matt Posky
by Matt Posky
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autonomous features are making everyone a worse driver

Autonomous vehicles are about as polarizing a subject as you could possibly bring up around a group of car enthusiasts. Plenty of gearheads get hot under the collar at the mere concept of a self-driving car. Meanwhile, automotive tech fetishists cannot wait to plant their — I’m assuming — khaki Chinos into the seat of an autonomous vehicle and enjoy a coffee without the hindrance of having to actually drive the thing to their destination.

I’ve previously discussed how autonomous cabs will become unparalleled filth-boxes, destined for salacious behavior. Because without driver oversight, why not sneeze into your hand and wipe it on the seat back? Now, surveys are beginning to indicate privately owned computer-controlled cars will be subject to similar activities — with some drivers suggesting they’ll have no qualms about having sex, drinking booze, or binge eating behind the wheel.

That’s the future we’re being promised, but a lot of autonomous features have already made it into modern production cars. Word is, they’re starting to make us terrible drivers. It’s enough to worry automakers to a point where they’re considering implementing an array of systems to more actively encourage driver involvement on a platform that’s designed to do the opposite.

Get ready to drive your self-driving car.

Beginning with the aforementioned survey, Erie Insurance commissioned an online Harris Poll (surveying 2,993 drivers licensed in the United States) to get a sense of what they might do with an autonomous vehicle. Of the group, 45 percent said they’d definitely make phone calls, 42 percent said they’d eat, 27 percent were willing to read, and 21 percent claimed they’d watch television.

On the scarier side of things, 19 percent said they’d try to sleep, 7 percent admitted they’d be willing to engage in “romantic activities,” and 5 percent said they’d be totally fine with drinking behind the wheel. One third, or 33 percent, of respondents also believed that one of the biggest advantages of self-driving cars will be the ability to get home safely if under the influence of drugs or alcohol — even if they weren’t already willing to risk trying it themselves.

Considering autonomous vehicles will still require some level of driver involvement for years to come, it’s a little scary that only 35 percent of the respondents said they’d do nothing other than simply drive the car. Driver intervention seems like a mandatory precaution for the foreseeable future, so all of those morons thinking about taking a nap had better pop some NoDoze or Jet-Alert (or whatever truckers still take) and mind the road.

If you’re of the assumption that nobody would dare abandon their duties as a driver until self-driving cars reach autonomous perfection, think again. The NHTSA investigation into the fatal Tesla crash, where the victim was allegedly watching a DVD when the vehicle’s Autopilot system failed to recognize a semi-trailer, discovered the car’s computer alerted the driver to retake the wheel seven times prior to the crash.

Tesla’s updated Autopilot system now requires additional driver involvement, mainly as a way to safeguard it against litigation — something other automakers are considering as they develop their own systems. General Motors plans on installing eye-tracking technology on Super Cruise-equipped Cadillac models later this year, while Nissan’s ProPilot Assist brings the vehicle to a full stop if the driver takes their hands off the wheel for an extended period.

Vehicular fatalities increased by 14 percent over the last two years, with over than 40,000 people dying in avoidable wrecks in 2016 alone. Plenty of that is due to a marginally higher number of total drivers, but NHTSA research suggests electronic distractions have increased while cell phone usage has dropped. The agency believes it to be a contributing factor to the increased number of roadway deaths.

Obviously concerned how all of this will evolve, automakers are wary of enabling drivers to develop bad habits while placing undeserved faith in self-driving technologies. “What are the new risky behaviors going to be?” Chuck Gulash, director of Toyota’s Collaborative Safety Research Center, said in an interview with Bloomberg. “Is it going to be people testing their vehicles to the limits? Or showing off to their neighbors?”

Practically every survey shows the general populace is extremely wary of new technology, but these apprehensions typically dissolve after a few weeks of ownership. That’s when complacency grows, along with the risk of accidents.

A University of Michigan study hints this may already be occurring with present-day driver assistance technology. The school conducted research for an automaker concerned with how people use blind-spot detection systems — finding 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, as associate researcher 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.”

People like features that make their commute less stressful, but higher stress situations also force you to be more alert and better prepared for whatever comes next. Automakers straddle the line by promoting an autonomous future where the driver doesn’t have to do anything, like Hyundai’s “ Empty Car Convoy,” and mitigating real world risk by employing systems that force the driver to remain involved.

“There are lots of concerns about people checking out and we are trying to monitor that now,” said Adrian Lund, president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. “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.”

Matt Posky
Matt Posky

Consumer advocate tracking industry trends, regulation, and the bitter-sweet nature of modern automotive tech. Research focused and gut driven.

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4 of 40 comments
  • THX1136 THX1136 on Aug 11, 2017

    With nearly 800,000 miles driven in my life I've had 3 collisions. Admittedly I live in what most would describe as a rural area. Only one collision was is an urban area. I've learned I need to be constantly aware of what is going on around me. I always look down the road a half mile or more so I can anticipate future issues. In town I'm looking 3 blocks ahead for the same reason. I'm somewhat unsettled on autonomous vehicles. I can see the benefit, but I think I lean more toward the thought of the use it or lose it folks. I think I would prefer to remain engaged as opposed to not being so.

    • See 1 previous
    • Vulpine Vulpine on Aug 13, 2017

      @joeaverage Take the train. May not be as fast as a plane but one heck of a lot more comfortable and no stress of watching out for the other guy.

  • V-Strom rider V-Strom rider on Aug 20, 2017

    Level 4 and 5 cars will dramatically reduce crashes, no doubt, especially when they become ubiquitous. Level 2 and 3 are fundamentally flawed because they lull drivers into a false sense of security while expecting them to be fully alert and poised to take control. Never going to work. It's like suggesting you set a timer to remind you to do something but then expecting you to check your watch every couple of minutes in case the timer doesn't work. That approach willfully ignores real-world human behaviour.

  • Carsofchaos The bike lanes aren't even close to carrying "more than the car lanes replaced". You clearly don't drive in Midtown Manhattan on a daily like I do.
  • Carsofchaos The problem with congestion, dear friends, is not the cars per se. I drive into the city daily and the problem is this:Your average street in the area used to be 4 lanes. Now it is a bus lane, a bike lane (now you're down to two lanes), then you have delivery trucks double parking, along with the Uber and Lyft drivers also double parking. So your 4 lane avenue is now a 1.5 lane avenue. Do you now see the problem? Congestion pricing will fix none of these things....what it WILL do is fund persion plans.
  • FreedMike Many F150s I encounter are autonomously driven...and by that I mean they're driving themselves because the dips**ts at the wheel are paying attention to everything else but the road.
  • Tassos A "small car", TIM????????????This is the GLE. Have you even ever SEEN the huge thing at a dealer's??? NOT even the GLC,and Merc has TWO classes even SMALLER than the C (The A and the B, you guessed it? You must be a GENIUS!).THe E is a "MIDSIZED" crossover, NOT A SMALL ONE BY ANY STRETCH OF THE IMAGINATION, oh CLUELESS one.I AM SICK AND TIRED OF THE NONSENSE you post here every god damned day.And I BET you will never even CORRECT your NONSENSE, much less APOLOGIZE for your cluelessness and unprofessionalism.
  • Stuki Moi "How do you take a small crossover and make it better?Slap the AMG badge on it and give it the AMG treatment."No, you don't.In fact, that is specifically what you do NOT do.Huge, frail wheels, and postage stamp sidewalls, do nothing but make overly tall cuvs tramline and judder. And render them even less useful across the few surfaces where they could conceivably have an advantage over more properly dimensioned cars. And: Small cuvs have pitiful enough fuel range as it is, even with more sensible engines.Instead, to make a small CUV better, you 1)make it a lower slung wagon. And only then give it the AMG treatment. AMG'ing, makes sense for the E class. And these days with larger cars, even the C class. For the S class, it never made sense, aside from the sheer aural visceralness of the last NA V8. The E-class is the center of AMG. Even the C-class, rarely touches the M3.Or 2) You give it the Raptor/Baja treatment. Massive, hypersophisticated suspension travel allowing landing meaningful jumps. As well as driving up and down wide enough stairs if desired. That's a kind of driving for which a taller stance, and IFS/IRS, makes sense.Attempting to turn a CUV into some sort of a laptime wonder, makes about as much sense as putting an America's Cup rig atop a ten deck cruiseship.