By on March 12, 2020

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]


Get the latest TTAC e-Newsletter!

17 Comments on “Annoy the Driver: IIHS Offers Its Two Cents on Improving Self-Driving Safety...”

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    “That’s why systems should be designed to keep drivers actively engaged.”

    Sure, but the promise of Level 4 and 5 systems is that the driver doesn’t need to be actively engaged. But those systems will be stopped by the lawyers.

  • avatar

    The obvious solution is to keep the systems Firmly, Obviously, in Level 2, where a driver would have to be insane to completely turn the car over to the drive-assist features.

    I use the Lane Keeping and Adaptive Cruise in my CR-V pretty much every time I’m on the highway, but the systems are not *nearly* good enough for me to even *think* of doing any of the crazy stunts Tesla drivers amuse themselves with. The systems take care of short-range tasks (like lane-centering and following distance), leaving me to do the long-range tasks I’m much-better at than any computer system.

    • 0 avatar

      ^ This!

      My Accord’s lane-centering and stop-‘n-go on the adaptive cruise is enough assist for me! I don’t need any further autonomous aid, thankyouverymuch!

  • avatar

    I’d suggest you drive an old dangerous car without any safety devices. I’m very aware of the road and my surroundings every time I get in my Elan. Pay attention or die.

    • 0 avatar
      Tele Vision

      @ Fred

      This. The article above doesn’t read like it’s addressing driving at all – more ‘riding’ or ‘waiting to get there’. It’s the contemporary follow-on from automatics vs. manuals as far as engagement is concerned, and more’s the pity.

    • 0 avatar
      Steve Biro

      Agreed. Frankly, a manual transmission may be able to accomplish way more than this highly flawed “driver assistance” technology can do. If I ever really need to buy a new car again, the first thing I will do is pull the fuses on all of these nannies.

  • avatar

    I thought I was getting a real safety device when I ordered my 97 Grand Prix with ” heads up eye cue display” never have to look down to look at your speedo, but then there was the cassette deck, which one to put in, then soon after the cell phone where is it, it’s ringing, and the list goes on! Amazing the heads up display is still working after 23 years, as is the rest of the car!Don’t know if the air bags will work though!

  • avatar

    Let’s make driving as annoying as possible so people abandon it for public transport.. Ahhh nevermind, you have to pay attention to be annoyed.. Won’t work here.

  • avatar
    DC Bruce

    Being just over 70, I’m sure that I’m rapidly approaching senescence (if I haven’t already achieved it). To me, there is a difference between driving aids that do things better than any (or most) humans are capable of, such as electronic stability control and ABS, and driving aids that attempt to relieve the driver of responsibility for paying attention. I’m all for the first kind of aids but fail to see the need for the second, except as marketing tools to attempt to differentiate otherwise highly similar products. I do plead guilty to using non-adaptive cruise control because (1) it seems to promote better gas mileage and (2) because in this era of aggressive speed limit enforcement the key to “making good time” is consistency in one’s chosen (legally acceptable) speed. But I shudder to think of the consequences that would result from having my “you’re closing the vehicle ahead of you too fast” warning system actually connected to my vehicle’s brakes. It falses about 40% of the time.

    • 0 avatar

      DC Bruce I like your categorization of what’s useful and what’s not.

      I rarely use the non-adaptive cruise control because I enjoy controlling the engine. But I do occasionally use it for brief interludes when driving between Boston and DC on the interstates.

  • avatar

    I’ve been making some repairs and upgrades to my ‘94 Miata. Great visibility, great brakes with excellent balance and feedback, fantastic steering feel, nimble and responsive, a 5-speed to keep you engaged and not a single driver aid – no ABS. You stay alert because you have to, you have no choice. Listening to the radio is almost pointless since it’s pretty loud, likewise talking on a phone. Over 300k without an accident. Several close calls I’ve been able to avoid thanks, in part, to great handling.
    Personally I think the touchscreen is the most dangerous thing ever put in a car. Completely idiotic and incredibly distracting. With no tactile feedback you must look at it to navigate the senseless menus just to turn down the bass on the radio. And let’s not forget the agonizing lag time between button press and screen response. I have no desire to own a new car with that trash installed in the dash.

    • 0 avatar


      If you rent a lot of cars, you get pissed off just about every rental. The TV screen runs everything on the car. Bass, Treble, A/C temp, blower speed.and so forth.

      I will not buy a car with this crap.
      Add in Start/STop
      No CD players.
      High beltlines
      and i might keep my current car a LONG time.

      • 0 avatar

        Props to Imagefont and redapple. I’m also inclined to keep my Civic that has a clutch and no touch screen for as long as I can keep it going.

        I’d love to interview some of the engineers who came up with the notion of putting touch screens in cars to find out what the hell they were thinking.

    • 0 avatar

      “Personally I think the touchscreen is the most dangerous thing ever put in a car. Completely idiotic and incredibly distracting. With no tactile feedback you must look at it to navigate the senseless menus just to turn down the bass on the radio. And let’s not forget the agonizing lag time between button press and screen response. I have no desire to own a new car with that trash installed in the dash.”

      Agreed. My Mustang has a traditional style stereo while my wife’s 300 has the touchscreen radio. I can adjust my Mustang’s stereo without looking at it. My wife’s stereo is bright at night, and I have to navigate through a few menus to put it on ‘screen saver’. Each menu requires attention and a dexterity test to hit the screen in the right place while driving on crappy roads. Not safe. I was shopping stereos to put in the truck, and I’ve decided I’m buying a single-DIN with traditional buttons instead of a double-DIN tablet style stereo.

  • avatar

    Since my 2017 isn’t blessed with these sorta-self-driving tricks, I can only imagine the pleasure … no, the horror of sitting in the driver’s seat not quite driving, but negotiating with a car that’s automatic, but fallable. I’m expected to make regular steering corrections to a self-steering car? In real time, at freeway speeds? Thanks, but I’d rather just unplug and drive. Another blogger today compared his Tesla’s Autopilot to a well-trained horse that knows the way, except when he doesn’t. That sort of watchful monitoring is better suited to horse-and-buggy speeds. Let’s also consider the view of “Sully” Sullenburger, pilot of that ditching in the Hudson River. He thinks the technologists have it backwards. Humans are poor at passively paying attention, monitoring machines, he says. The better solution is to use the computers to monitor what human drivers and pilots are doing.

    Considering that I’ll draw the line at lane departure warnings.

  • avatar

    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.

  • avatar

    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.

Read all comments

Back to TopLeave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Recent Comments

  • Jeff S: Some of us just don’t need to drive large vehicles. At one time I drove just large cars with V8s which...
  • Jeff S: I did something similar to hypermilling during the Arab Oil Embargo of 1973 with my parents 64 Impala wagon...
  • Art Vandelay: You have nothing to refute with respect to what he says, so you just attack the person. Typical.
  • Jeff S: @Dave M.–He is just part of the Trumpers who are told to go out and spread the big lie that the...
  • EBFlex: “According to a T-shirt I saw a young man wearing on June 19th at church celebrating the 4th of July...

New Car Research

Get a Free Dealer Quote

Who We Are

  • Adam Tonge
  • Bozi Tatarevic
  • Corey Lewis
  • Jo Borras
  • Mark Baruth
  • Ronnie Schreiber