Annoy the Driver: IIHS Offers Its Two Cents on Improving Self-Driving Safety

Matt Posky
by Matt Posky
annoy the driver iihs offers its two cents on improving self driving safety

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has issued a set of guidelines for advanced driving aids, suggesting that the key to automated safety is making sure drivers are perpetually engaged with the vehicle’s operations. Unfortunately, this has turned out to be a Catch-22 scenario due to the way these systems function. Semi-autonomous features are supposed to be there to help promote safety by adding an extra layer of protection; however, many encourage motorists to disengage by nature of their design.

Adaptive cruise control with lane keeping is probably the worst offender. Implemented as a way to keep cars a safe distance apart on the expressway, it offers an experience that borders on having the car chauffeur you around. The effectiveness of these systems vary widely, with none actually being capable of any legitimate self-driving functionality. You’re also not supposed to be able to tune out while they’re in use, but they all seem coyly contrived to do exactly that. The IIHS is concerned this phenomenon will only get worse as driving aids evolve and become increasingly commonplace.

“Unfortunately, the more sophisticated and reliable automation becomes, the more difficult it is for drivers to stay focused on what the vehicle is doing,” said IIHS President David Harkey. “That’s why systems should be designed to keep drivers actively engaged.”

Tesla has taken quite a bit of heat over claims that it intentionally misled customers with the marketing language of its Autopilot tech. Considering the number of YouTube videos explaining how to beat the engagement checks used by the automaker to see if you’re still paying attention, it’s easy to see why. But this is actually a problem that affects all manufacturers; practically everyone uses confidence-inspiring monikers for their driver assistance packages, and few warnings are found about the associated perils.

The IIHS, however, is more interested in their design than in the marketing theories used in their promotion. It claims research supports the idea that the more driving a vehicle attempts to do on its own, the more likely human drivers are to start looking at their navels and phones ( an issue we’ve discussed for years). The remedy, according to the institute, is to make it so people can never relax while aids are in use.

From IIHS:

The systems that are currently available either assume the driver is paying attention when his or her hands are on the wheel or use a driver-facing camera to determine if the driver’s head is oriented toward the road, but neither is foolproof. The researchers recommend employing multiple monitoring methods, including using a driver-facing camera and measuring things like manual adjustments to the steering wheel and how quickly the driver responds to attention reminders.

When the driver monitoring system detects that the driver’s focus has wandered, that should trigger a series of escalating attention reminders. The first warning should be a brief visual reminder. If the driver doesn’t quickly respond, the system should rapidly add an audible or physical alert, such as seat vibration, and a more urgent visual message.

Moments later, all three types of warnings should be presented. Throughout this sequence, the urgency of each alert should continue to escalate. If the driver doesn’t respond to the alerts, the system should increase following distance from the vehicle ahead and pulse the brakes to provide a warning that is difficult to ignore.

If the driver continues ignoring the wall of sound and light, the IIHS says the car should automatically flip on its hazards and attempt a stop (ideally on the shoulder). From here, motorists would have the ability to resume normal vehicle operations, but would be prohibited from using any driving aids for the remainder of the trip.

While a universal safety standard like this would undoubtedly force drivers to stay engaged, it’s more than a little ironic that the solution to underdeveloped self-driving technology is to strong-arm customers back into doing all the work.

This also doesn’t sound particularly desirable from a consumer standpoint. For one thing, modern cars already make way too much noise. Departing your lane? Warning chime. Coming up to a stoplight faster than a crawl? Warning chime. Live in an urban setting where people routinely engage in “creative” driving? Prepare for the car to try and force you into having a panic attack. And all this does is encourage you to look frantically around the cabin as you try to decipher which issue the car thinks is the most pressing when you could have been scanning the horizon and checking your own blind spots.

“Because these systems still aren’t capable of driving without human supervision, they have to help prevent the driver from falling out of the loop,” said IIHS Research Scientist Alexandra Mueller, who headed the recommendations.

With the systems themselves often creating the perfect scenario for drivers to disengage, we’re starting to feel the entire premise is deeply flawed. Unless our reading comprehension has fallen off a cliff, it sounds like the IIHS is acknowledging that these systems actually create safety hazards. Problem is, the institute’s solution is to strip away some of their functionality while encouraging motorists to drive like they don’t exist by perpetually reminding them that they do.

What’s the lesson to drivers here? Don’t trust the safety systems in your own car but please continue buying them as they hopefully become increasingly obnoxious? Doesn’t sound like an idyllic marketing strategy to us. No one is going to brag about how they spent their hard-earned cash on the safety suite that is the most adept at bullying them into paying more attention.

[Image: General Motors]

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2 of 17 comments
  • Schurkey Schurkey on Mar 13, 2020

    Self-driving is evil. NO vehicle should be legally allowed to steer, brake, or accelerate without direct driver input. "Speed-holding" devices should be legal, provided they don't engage brakes or accelerate without direct driver involvement. If self-driving is not made illegal, every collision involving any level of "self driving" beyond "speed-holding" should require the manufacturer of the vehicle to assume all liability. End of problem. We all know that human nature is to let the vehicle drive itself while the "driver" goofs-off. Therefore, vehicles that encourage driver inattention due to "redundant" "safety features" like adaptive cruise, monitoring other lanes, etc, are inherently counter-productive.

  • ToolGuy ToolGuy on Mar 15, 2020

    I don't know how this works with a new driver. If a teen 'learns' to drive with the vehicle doing most of the work, and then when the AI gets overtaxed it dumps control back to the novice driver (snow, ice, rain, poor visibility, ambiguous road situation), we have a problem.

  • Chris P Bacon I had a chance to drive 2 Accords back to back as rentals. The first was a base ICE LX. I was underwhelmed. The next was a Sport Hybrid. Like night and day. So much so that I ventured on to the grounds of my local dealer. Was looking for a Sport or Sport-L. Autotrader showed nothing within 250 miles. Dealer confirmed. Told me I'd have to "get on the list" for a delivery, and there was a non-negotiable $3k "market adjustment". I guess I'll have to hope to see one on the Emerald Aisle again.
  • DungBeetle62 I just this past weekend rented one of these for 5 days in SoCal and with $5.29 the best I could find for gas, this ride's wonderful combination of comfort and thrift was welcome indeed. My biggest real beef is with the entire Accord product line - with that angle of backlight, not having this as a 5-door hatch seems a real waste of space.
  • RICHARD I bought my wife the exact car in the picture 3 weeks ago. Acceleration is average for the class. Smoothness of the powertrain, competent ride dynamics, quietness, and comfort are definitely pluses. The styling is restrained for sure, but we weren't looking for a shouty car that doesn't deliver on the design statement. She drives about 8,000 miles per year, mostly around town. At the current rate, we expect to buy about 16 gallons of gas per month. This really is a car that appears to do everything well rather than excelling at a few things to the detriment of others.
  • Ajla "2010-2019 Borrego"The Borrego only had model years 2009 - 2011 in the United States. The Borrego/Mohave did exist in international markets beyond them but the NHTSA of the United States would not be handling a recall on those. It's annoying that apparently the manufacturer, the federal regulator, and automotive press didn't notice this.
  • SilverCoupe The last Accord I test drove was in 1978, but I ended up buying a VW Scirocco instead. The Accords have put on quite a bit of weight since, then, but then again, so have I!