By on April 11, 2018

Driving aids are touted as next-level safety tech, but they’re also a bit of a double-edged sword. While accident avoidance technology can apply the brakes before you’ve even thought of it, mitigate your following distance, and keep your car in the appropriate lane, it also lulls you into a false sense of security.

Numerous members of the our staff have experienced this first hand, including yours truly. The incident usually plays out a few minutes after testing adaptive cruise control or lane assist. Things are progressing smoothly, then someone moves into your lane and the car goes into crisis mode — causing you to ruin your undergarments. You don’t even have to be caught off guard for it to be a jarring experience, and it’s not difficult to imagine an inexperienced, inattentive, or easily panicked driver making the situation much worse.

Lane keeping also has its foibles. Confusing road markings or snowy road conditions can really throw it for a loop. But the problem is its entire existence serves to allow motorists to take a more passive role while driving. So what happens when it fails to function properly? In ideal circumstances, you endure a moderate scare before taking more direct command of your vehicle. But, in a worst case scenario, you just went off road or collided with an object at highway speeds. 

Following a handful or accidents involving semi and fully autonomous driving systems, the National Transportation Safety Board has concluded that automakers need to do more to ensure people don’t misuse those functions. Tesla, which has already seen two NTSB investigations after fatal Autopilot incidents, shored up its semi-autonomous system to require a more hands-on approach. However, owners have discovered workarounds — like affixing a water bottle or an orange to the steering wheel.

“What Tesla has is basically a sensor that just detects whether your hands are on the wheel,” explained Gartner Inc. researcher Mike Ramsey. “If it doesn’t detect anything on the wheel for a certain amount of time, it first gives a visual warning, then an audible warning, then the car starts slowing down. It’s somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 seconds or longer. At 70 miles per hour, that’s a long time — a lot can happen in that period of time.”

According to Bloomberg, the NTSB says Tesla is working on unspecified improvements that will make its driver-assistance systems more difficult to abuse. “They have indicated that they have already made some improvements and are working on additional improvements,” agency spokesman Peter Knudson said, noting NTSB highway investigators have been in regular contact with the automaker’s technical staff.

One safety measure, developed by both General Motors and Subaru, is infrared cameras that tracks the driver’s eye and head movements. By being able to register when someone is about to nod off or check their smartphone, the vehicle can respond accordingly. Still, this doesn’t address the issue that driving aids inherently remove the operator from direct engagement in what’s happening around them. Studies have shown that even attentive drivers take longer to respond in emergency situations when semi-autonomous systems have been operating for several minutes.

Even simple aids can dull your senses if you let them.

The University of Michigan published a study way back in 2010 that claimed blind spot detection systems caused people to stop looking over their shoulder to check for themselves while changing lanes. “The more they are exposed to these systems, the more they trust the systems,” explained Shan Bao, an associate researcher at the university’s Transportation Research Institute, who conducted the study. In most situations, “they’ll trust the systems more than they’ll trust themselves.”

“Without question, technology is making drivers lazier and less attentive,” said Mike Harley, managing editor at Kelley Blue Book in an interview from 2017. “Most of today’s digital ‘driver assistance’ features are designed to overlay basic driving skills, which relaxes the driver’s sense of responsibility.”

Despite all of this, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has suggested driving aids actually reduce accidents in the long run. While its research focused primarily on lane departure warnings and blind spot detection, the working assumption was that electronic aids were good. However, the IIHS has also acknowledged that assistance systems probably degrade a person’s driving skills. “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.”

At the end of the spectrum, a fully autonomous car allows a driver to disengage entirely. That can be incredibly dangerous if the vehicle isn’t operating perfectly. If something fails, you have a situation like what happened with Uber in Tempe, Arizona earlier this year. That fatal collision with a pedestrian could have been avoided if the vehicle’s operator was paying attention to the road ahead. When a car can supposedly drive itself, remaining engaged becomes a real problem.

“[Driver attentiveness] is really a critical area,” said Bryan Reimer, who studies driver behavior at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “We are clearly picking up technology in the car, portable phones, et cetera, at rates that are far and above what should be socially acceptable.”

Safety groups everywhere are asking automakers, tech firms, and even the government to slow down and consider how these technologies are being implemented. While they have the potential to save lives, especially if someone is a subpar driver, they also encourage bad behavior behind the wheel.

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40 Comments on “Driving Aids Allow Motorists to Tune Out, NTSB Wants Automakers to Fix It...”

  • avatar

    I hate driving aids. I turn them all off if I can.

    I also still write my turn by turn directions down on a piece of paper instead of using my phone or a GPS, so none of this stuff is for me.

    • 0 avatar

      WOW so do I! I also make use of this relic called a map.

      • 0 avatar

        Well, I prefer not killing trees, so I’ll gladly use the GPS on my phone.

        • 0 avatar

          As a moving map, GPS is great. As a guide for best routing… not so much. GPS has a tendency to take you over routes better left alone. This is where localized routing as recommended by the community is really a better way but is also something we won’t see any time soon; it needs to be based on the same data city traffic monitors use in order to safely route traffic by the most efficient roads.

          Until then, we need to rely on personal knowledge of the area first and if necessary, completely ignore GPS routing. Such global systems have little knowledge of infrastructure conditions when attempting to route away from major thoroughfares.

    • 0 avatar

      I truly belive GPS has dulled down my sense of direction and has made me somewhat dependent on it since I don’t have to think for myself or pay attention to geographical features of a new area to get my bearings.I try to stay away from it if I can. I will look up Google maps to learn the route but I won’t use them once underway.

  • avatar

    Disclaimer: I didn’t read the whole article. But I thought about it another day. I think, the aids should do warnings but not actions. For example, aid will turn down the volume in the radio and announce the issue and display on the dash. And let driver do the fixing. Otherwise we gonna end-up with ignorant engineers crossing median.

    • 0 avatar

      I believe some of the older GM vehicles will vibrate the side of the seat you are wandering to. If you are drifting out of your lane to the left, the seat rumbles on that side.

  • avatar

    Lane keep assist seems to me like an invitation for imbeciles to use their phones while driving.

  • avatar

    I have EyeSight in my Subaru, and it’s the best thing ever. The automated emergency braking likely averted an accident for me when a car yoinked in front of me at the last second at an off ramp just a week after I got the car. I was paying attention already and moving my foot to brake, but the car did it faster than I could. That also led to me getting a dashcam…

    I also use the adaptive cruise control daily during rush hour traffic. It does a lot to relieve fatigue during that 45-minute ride home at low speeds. But I do regularly take over momentarily to brake or speed up as necessary. I also feel like I’m better able to look around me when I have to merge into hairy situations twice per day because of the AEB. Lane keep assist I could take or leave. I often scoot over in my lane for motorcycles splitting lanes (I’m in CA), so it’s not useful in that situation.

    I think I use my driver assistance responsibly, but I’m sure some people use it as license to fool around. But we have a century of history that shows people will behave stupidly while driving no matter what. The driver assistance in MY car helps keep me safer, and I think on the whole it probably will help mitigate the damage idiots do.

    • 0 avatar

      I agree on the ACC and AEB, but those are the only Eyesight driver aids that I find useful. I find that ACC in particular is great for maintaining a safe gap behind another car without constantly having to fiddle with the speed setting. The backup monitor is somewhat helpful but often is triggered by movement too far away to be of concern. Lane departure is mostly annoying, beeping at me when I swing wide to give extra space to something that I’m passing on the roadside without bothering to use my turn signal. And the blind spot monitor is not very useful since it’s in the same mirror that I’m already checking to see if it’s safe to change lanes (the point of side mirrors is show you what is in that blind spot).

      However, I’m an old school driver that developed my habits long before these aids came along, so I’m not very inclined to rely on them more than my own senses and abilities. I suppose that new drivers could well be fooled into thinking that they don’t have to be responsible for what the driver aids are there to supplement.

      • 0 avatar

        Ah, yeah, forgot about the backup alert. The audible signal has come in handy a few times, but I don’t usually look down at the camera feed in the entertainment system – it just doesn’t feel quite right to do so, like I’m looking too far away. But it does help when I’m backing into a parking spot or parallel parking.

        I also find the blind spot monitor to be, not lacking, but…it’s like nobody’s figured out a great way to implement it yet. I think the way Subaru moved the alert light farther inboard on the mirror starting in ’17 models is a good step. But I’m set in my ways after 20 years of driving – I like to look over my shoulder or in the mirror.

        I reckon the solution to the troubles is to go whole hog. I can’t wait for the day I don’t have to do a damn thing on my commutes. Driving sucks.

        • 0 avatar

          I like the backup alert because it has a wide field of view, picks up fast moving cars entering from off the side. The problem is that it produces a lot of false positives because it reacts to any motion it sees within it’s field of view.

          Can’t fault the blind spot monitoring for mine, low rate of false positives, seems to discriminate well with differing relative vehicle speeds. What I did find is that you get desensitized to it after a while, which I thought I would never do when I first got mine.

  • avatar

    I got burned by over-reliance on Ford’s back-up/cross traffic alert a few years back, when I was still getting used to the technology. I was backing out of a parking spot and a person a couple spots over started backing up at the same time. My car started alerting and I assumed it was because of the car backing up near me, and I accelerated a bit to make sure I cleared their path in case they didn’t see me. Suddenly my rear bumper clipped a tow hitch of a parked truck that was sticking way out behind me (which is what the alert was actually trying to warn me about).

    I’m not blaming the system — once you realize how the system truly works (strengths and limitations), it’s very helpful. But after that incident, I never assume I know what’s triggering an alert, or assume something is a false alarm (which sometimes happens in bright sunlight or when backing up from a hilly driveway).

    • 0 avatar

      I love my backup beepers, but they often go off when it detects the garage door frame, as I start backing out. I decided to never assume and always double check all mirrors when it goes off.

      Dang thing may have actually made me more alert.

    • 0 avatar

      FCA’s system uses different chimes for back-up (i.e., stationary obstacle) and cross-traffic (i.e., moving object) alerts.

  • avatar

    I’ve been thrilled with the ACC/LKAS on my ’17 CR-V. It takes over tedious and tiring exacting “station keeping” duties, leaving me to do things like look farther down the road for things it can’t see.

    I will say that I dug through the settings to get the car to beep at me if LKAS loses the lane markings. Bizarrely, that was not on by default. (It’s a gentle beep, not a “you’re gonna die!!!” beep.)

  • avatar

    If adaptive cruise control confuses you and/or throws you for a loop, you shouldn’t be behind the wheel at all.

    30 years ago, seat belt laws were coming about. Many talk radio shows were full of people discussing how they would lead to chaos and anarchy on the roads, with everyone feeling safe now that they’re belted in.

    People are stupid.

  • avatar

    One of my neighbors helped another neighbor, who was elderly, by going to the store to help pick up some things that he couldn’t manage alone. The elderly driver relied heavily on his CTS’ auto braking feature for normal stop and go traffic. Based on this and the other things about the trip, the younger neighbor called the elderly neighbor’s family and the car keys were soon taken away.
    I fear that these safety/nanny features can cover up problems that are best solved by not allowing certain people to drive.

  • avatar

    Humans are hardwired for engagement, so Autonomous Driving is trying to buck evolutionary psychology. Good luck with that. Autonomous is being oversold because chipmakers need something to do with all that power, and engineers love a big hairy ass problem to solve.

  • avatar

    I’ve installed aftermarket Mobileye headway monitoring devices on 2 of our cars and my mom’s 2016 Mazda6. The latter had an option for automatic emergency braking, but that would require an automatic transmission and I didn’t like the idea of false-positives (and false-negative) events. Furthermore, it just seems like one more thing to fail and the results could be rather grave.

    As for the Mobileye, we love them. We have them set to .8 second headway (approximately 3 car lengths at 60mph) and it’s great warning when someone ahead of your hits their brakes with non-functioning brake lights. We have noticed a few false-positives when you’re rounding a corner, but have yet to experience a false-negative.

    The key is to have driving aids that enhance or backup up a user’s judgment, not to allow them to atrophy.

  • avatar

    Full control, Level 5, is not ready for prime time (except in some low speed special areas). Partial control and driving aids are VERY likely to cause crashes. Many will operate with 99+% efficiency, lulling inattentive drivers into a false sense of security that they can really relax. Then the 1/10th of 1% emergency will happen, the driver will not notice until it is too late because they are not paying much attention …. and CRASH!

    Did you ever wonder why no more than 6 logos are on Interstate signs for restaurants & hotels at the next exit? That is because serious safety research showed you can perceive the 6 in about 2 seconds and 2 seconds is the longest span of time with diverted attention to the road that is considered safe at freeway speeds. Now you have some driving aids that will operate for 10 seconds without human controls. Who are the morons who said that was OK?

    (By an active member of the National Motorists Association)

    • 0 avatar

      If NHTSA has found that the driving aids lower crashes and fatalities, my guess is that their studies didn’t last long enough to take into account drivers’ acceptance of these aids, and their resulting inattention. I’ve said for a while now that, longer-term, these are not a good idea. Small example: how many people drive without headlights on in low light situations because the automatic light control didn’t come on? Not my fault; its the car’s fault. Bigger driver aids, bigger problems…

    • 0 avatar

      “Full control, Level 5, is not ready for prime time (except in some low speed special areas).”

      If it’s limited to a geographic area, it’s not level 5. It’s level 4. Obtaining level 4 is a pretty big deal.

  • avatar


  • avatar

    Record my vote for these systems. I’m getting up there and my reflexes aren’t what they were. I have a ’16 3 series BMW with all the nannies and they really help. I’ve been known to get distracted and start to wander the next lane. My car tells me. I still look in the mirror before changing lanes but the visual and tactile warning has saved me a few times, as has the ACC.

    I think it helps that the BMW systems really work well. I don’t have the complaints others have with their cars. About the only consistently false alert is cresting a steep hill– at the top occasionally the lane keeping assist thinks I’ve leaving the lane while I”m cresting the hill.

    I think if you don’t pay attention because of these driving aids, you won’t pay attention without them, and they just might save you.

  • avatar

    How about a HUD display that shows the driver what the systems are seeing?

  • avatar
    Hamilton Guy

    In Canada, where daytime running lights are required, either the regulators or the manufacturers decided that the dash lights should be on when the DRLs are but the tail lights shoudn’t be. Resulting in idiots driving along a road a road at night with just their DRLs on

    • 0 avatar

      I’ve made that mistake too. A common point of reference I’ve always relied on was that if it’s too dark for me to see my dashboard gauges, then it’s time to turn on the lights. Unfortunately, now with modern gauges being backlight all the time, I don’t have that little reminder.

      A better fix would be for cars that use DRL’s to have automatic headlights. People aren’t forgetting because they’re iditos, they’re forgetting because those lights are bright enough for people to assume that they already have their headlights on.

      • 0 avatar

        Some vehicles now use an ‘idiot light’ on the dash to let you know when your headlamps are on, but the driver needs to know what it means when that indicator is NOT illuminated.

  • avatar

    People are already texting, browsing, playing games, facetiming, etc. on their phones while driving, and it’s now completely illegal. Why would anyone expect that suddenly people will pay more attention to the road or become better drivers when they are told that the cars can now sometimes drive themselves.

    I don’t need to be an oracle to predict what’s going to happen: People will find the way to completely zone out while driving. Driving skills will degrade and soon we will have no other option but to take away the right to drive your own car, and all cars will have to be self driving and they will travel on roads and in traffic that are controlled by computers.

  • avatar

    “…mitigate your following distance…”

    Well, that makes no sense.

  • avatar

    I’m fine with these systems being available, as long as I can turn them off or adjust the level of sensitivity,etc. The problem is that these systems, along with any “autopilot” system, are to used as driving aids, not to have the last word in the operation of the vehicle. Yet people are so distracted now by their mobile device, the average driver NEEDS these things to drive.

    Our ’14 Odyssey was my first experience with these kind of systems:

    – The Lanewatch camera on the passenger side mirror was fine, once you got used to it. It was a great tool for parking in tight places. Same with the rearview camera. Visibility is so poor out the back of nearly all vehicles now and everything is so tall, backing out of spaces is getting more challenging.

    -Lane departure warning was turned off in the first day of ownership because it was obnoxious even on its lowest setting.

    -Forward collision warning was OK initially, but as the vehicle aged (and we’re only talking three years here) it was more prone to false alerts. False alerts make you complacent, because you start ignoring the system. But I never turned the FCW off because I figured that one time it wasn’t crying wolf, it might be a good thing. Plus, Honda gave you a constant warning light to indicate it being off.

    My Golf has the least intrusive driving aids I’ve experienced in a new car. I’ll be interested to see how they age, but they are functioning as an aid, not a “Holy Hell! What ARE you doing?!” alarm. And every time the forward collision warning has gone off, I’ve already been braking or taking evasive action.

    Again, you can install all that you want in the vehicle. Just give me a chance to adjust or disable it.

  • avatar

    I keep the lane control feature turned off on my Lacrosse. I find the tugging of the wheel when getting close to a white line annoying. This happens when changing lanes unless you use the turn signal.

    I had never experienced this feature so when I left the dealership and got on the highway I noticed the vehicle pulling to the right. I told my wife, this car has got to go back for a front end alignment!

  • avatar

    Just not interested in any of it. I have had various driver aids in sundry rental cars and find them universally annoying with the sole exception of radar cruise control. Which I find somewhat useful, but am too cheap to pay for.

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