IIHS Study Underlines the Perils of Driver Disengagement

Matt Posky
by Matt Posky
iihs study underlines the perils of driver disengagement

It turns out there’s a name for the false sense of security provided by modern driving aids. According to researchers with the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s AgeLab, the phenomenon is called “driver disengagement” and it’s assumed to be a contributing factor to roadways fatalities. The duo recently published a rather basic study examining how evolving automotive technologies might be eroding safety under the guise of progress.

Since we’ve been onto the perils and shortcomings of advanced driving aids since their introduction, it also provides us with another stellar opportunity to gloat. Heck, our criticisms go back far enough to predate any reputable research on the matter. We were just bitter cranks then, annoyed that the systems seemed unworthy of our trust despite constantly demanding it. But the IIHS said its latest testing found motorists frequently lose focus while utilizing features like adaptive cruise control and lane-keeping. This issue reportedly worsens the more familiar drivers become with the systems, which would be fine if they could be counted on for total effectiveness. Sadly, there’s been more than enough testing for us to know that’s not the case.

Researchers wanted to know exactly how complacent drivers could get by splitting subjects into two groups of 10. One group was given a Land Rover Range Rover Evoque equipped with adaptive cruise control (ACC), which automatically keeps the vehicle traveling at speeds selected by the driver while maintaining a pre-established following distance with the car ahead. The other group drove a Volvo S90 with both ACC and Pilot Assist — Volvo’s “partially automated” system that combines adaptive cruising with lane-centering technology that attempts to keep the car positioned safely in its lane.

Initially, researchers noticed no difference in the subjects’ driving habits. By the end of the month, however, the situation had changed dramatically. Drivers of the S90 were found to be 12 times more likely to remove both hands from the wheel than they were just 30 days earlier. Those in the Land Rover also saw their attentiveness degrade and checked their phones more often. But the overall increase in dangerous behavior was cited as less than that of those driving the Volvo.

“Drivers were more than twice as likely to show signs of disengagement after a month of using Pilot Assist compared with the beginning of the study,” said IIHS Senior Research Scientist Ian Reagan. “Compared with driving manually, they were more than 12 times as likely to take both hands off the wheel after they’d gotten used to how the lane centering worked.”

From IIHS:

Pilot Assist and similar systems like Tesla’s Autopilot, Cadillac’s Super Cruise and Mercedes-Benz’s Intelligent Drive are not designed to replace the driver. They have trouble negotiating many common road features, so the driver must be in control at all times. However, with the automation managing steering and speed — quite well in some cases — it’s easy for the driver to lose focus.

“This study supports our call for more robust ways of ensuring the driver is looking at the road and ready to take the wheel when using [SAE] Level 2 systems,” says Reagan. “It shows some drivers may be getting lulled into a false sense of security over time.”

The group made it clear that it now has real concerns regarding advanced driving aids and reminded readers that it previously issued recommendations for improving these features. The European New Car Assessment Program (Euro NCAP) has also introduced a rating system for driver assistance packages that attempts to quantify how adept the systems are. Unfortunately, the general consensus is that drivers still need to maintain maximum awareness, and the vehicles themselves could be improved by constantly reminding the driver to stay in the game. The European Commission is even pushing legislation that would require manufacturers to implement elaborate systems that monitor occupants.

We’re less keen on the notion of having automobiles habitually annoy motorists, however. Any system that requires drivers to be surveilled by their car’s onboard camera and hit with chimes reminding them to drive every two minutes doesn’t sound like it’s worth a damn. We would rather see advanced driving aids scaled back and submitted to testing protocols proving their effectiveness. This isn’t a problem with those behind the wheel, it’s a fundamental flaw in the features being offered by automakers. Don’t blame the person who bought the car for the misleading marketing used by the manufacturer to sell these features.

[Image: IIHS]

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  • Old_WRX Old_WRX on Nov 20, 2020

    I think another reason people become complacent about driving is the fact that modern cars isolate you so well from the fact that are moving as fast as you are. Taller vehicles aggravate the lack of perception of speed. It used to be cars were not insulated so well from engine/drivetrain and road noise, and did not ride so smoothly or feel so completely under control at 80 mph. You knew from the noise, ride and handling that you were going fast, hence, weren't so aloof from the risk involved. (Of course, when I was 17 or 18 none of that slowed me down one whit. Lord knows how I survived the idiot speeds I used to drive on twisty two lanes...)

  • JimC2 JimC2 on Nov 21, 2020

    I'd be all for a lane keeping system if it automatically moves out of the left lane after the driver leaves his/her hands off the wheel for, say, oh I'm feeling generous today, ten seconds.

  • BklynPete So let's get this straight: Ford hyped up the Bronco for 3 years, yet couldn't launch it to match the crazy initial demand. They released it with numerous QC issues, made hay for its greedy dealers, and burned customers in the process. After all that, they lose money on warranties. The vehicles turn out to be a worse ownership experience than the Jeep Wrangler, which hasn't been a paragon of reliability for 50 years. The same was true of the Aviator, Explorer, several F-150 variants, and other recent product launches. The Maverick is the only thing they got right. Yet this company that's been at it for 120 years. Just Brilliant. Jim Farley's non-PR speak: "You don't get to call me an idiot. I get to call myself an idiot first."Farley truly seems hapless, like the characters his late cousin played. Bill Ford is a nice guy but more than a bit slow on the uptake too. They have not had anything resembling a quality CEO since Alan Mulally turned the keys over to Mark Fields - the mulleted glamor boy who got canned after 3 years when the PowerShi(f)t transaxles exploded. He more recently helped run Hertz into the ground with bad QC and a faulty database that had them arresting customers. Ford is starting to resemble Chrysler in the mid-Seventies Sales Bank era. Well, at least VW has cash and envies Ford's distribution reach and potential profitability.
  • Mike Beranek This guy called and wants his business model back.
  • SCE to AUX The solid state battery is vaporware.As for software-limited pack capacity: Batteries are obviously the most expensive component of an EV, so on the rare occasion that pack capacity is dramatically limited (as in your 6-year-old example), it's because economies of scale briefly made sense at the time.Mfrs are not in the habit of overbuilding pack capacity just for fun, and then charging the customer less.Since then, pack capacities have been slightly increased via software because the mfr decides they can sacrifice a little bit of the normal safety/wear margin in the interest of range. We're talking single-digit percentages, not the 60/75 kWh jump in your example.Every pack has maybe 10% margin built into it, so eating into that today (via range increases) means it's not available to make up for battery degradation tomorrow. My 4-year-old EV still has its original range(s) and 100% SOH, but that's surely because it is slowly consuming the margin built into the pack.@Matt Posky: Not everything is a conspiracy to get your credit card account, and the lengthy editorial about this has nothing to do with solid state batteries.
  • JLGOLDEN In order for this total newcomer to grab and hold attention in the US market, the products MUST be an exceptional value. Not many people will pay name-brand money for the pretty mystery. I can appreciate the ambition of selling $50K+ crossovers, but I think they will go farther with their $30K-$40K offerings.
  • Dukeisduke They're where Tesla was when it started - a complete unknown. I haven't heard anything about a dealer network. How are they going to sell these? Direct like Tesla? Franchises picked up by existing new car dealers?
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