IIHS Study Underlines the Perils of Driver Disengagement

Matt Posky
by Matt Posky

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]

Matt Posky
Matt Posky

A staunch consumer advocate tracking industry trends and regulation. Before joining TTAC, Matt spent a decade working for marketing and research firms based in NYC. Clients included several of the world’s largest automakers, global tire brands, and aftermarket part suppliers. Dissatisfied with the corporate world and resentful of having to wear suits everyday, he pivoted to writing about cars. Since then, that man has become an ardent supporter of the right-to-repair movement, been interviewed on the auto industry by national radio broadcasts, driven more rental cars than anyone ever should, participated in amateur rallying events, and received the requisite minimum training as sanctioned by the SCCA. Handy with a wrench, Matt grew up surrounded by Detroit auto workers and managed to get a pizza delivery job before he was legally eligible. He later found himself driving box trucks through Manhattan, guaranteeing future sympathy for actual truckers. He continues to conduct research pertaining to the automotive sector as an independent contractor and has since moved back to his native Michigan, closer to where the cars are born. A contrarian, Matt claims to prefer understeer — stating that front and all-wheel drive vehicles cater best to his driving style.

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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.

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