By on November 19, 2020

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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21 Comments on “IIHS Study Underlines the Perils of Driver Disengagement...”

  • avatar

    This “study” all goes without saying, of course the more automated our lives become the less reliant we are on our own wits and skill. What did anyone suspect would be the result? I can’t imagine putting a young driver behind the wheel of a car built 70 years ago and expect them to be able to drive it, but does a young driver need the same skills as a driver did that many years ago?

    150 years ago I probably would need to know how to shoe a horse to ride one. I think technology will always be a double-edged sword

  • avatar
    Mike Beranek

    I don’t trust them. Not even a little bit.

    • 0 avatar

      I just bought a car with all the latest safety tech and although they all seem to work perfectly well there is no substitute for three mirrors and a quick glance with your own eyes

    • 0 avatar
      Steve Biro

      I don’t trust them either. But how much do you want to bet that the solution won’t be pulling these systems out of vehicles? It’ll be increased driver monitoring. It has to be. Otherwise, the automakers won’t be able to get away with all the screen acitvity they want you to engage in while driving. You know, so they can sell your information to third parties.

  • avatar

    I hope this study helps put any Autonomous Vehicle’s capabilities under more intense scrutiny before it is allowed on the street. I have very little faith in the true safety of these systems.

    • 0 avatar

      Looks like extreme automation of airplanes had not teach us anything. Thousands of people dies because of this automation. It came down to a point that pilots did not know how to manually fly these things and they crashed. NTSB needed to recommend that pilots manually land and train manually flying these machines.

  • avatar
    DC Bruce

    This seems to me to be an example of “too much of a good thing.” Today’s “car” is a 2-ton +/- object traveling (legally) at up to 80 mph. As such, it has the capability of inflicting tremendous damage. For now, the driver is legally and morally responsible for controlling this beast.

    The problem is that, from their inception, these “driving aids” have had, as their ultimate purpose, insulating the driver from perceiving this responsibility. I’m not arguing against power-assisted steering (I grew up driving full-sized sedans that lacked that feature) or power assisted brakes or even automatic transmissions. All of these reduced the driver’s workload and made driving possible for people lacking in physical strength.

    I’m not even going to complain about ABS (although it lengthens stopping distance in snow) or vehicle stability control . . . mostly because these systems are not engaged in normal driving.

    And I confess to using (non-“adaptive”) cruise control because it seems to result in better fuel mileage.

    But, I object to technologies that relieve the driver, even partially, of the obligation to steer the car (“lane-keeping” and similar) and keep a lookout for trouble ahead (“forward collision warning/avoidance”). I don’t think it’s a legitimate goal to permit a drive to check his phone (or tap out a series of commands on his car’s touch screen), apply make-up, or eat a Big Mac with two hands while rolling down the road.

    What other purpose do these technologies have, given that they are incapable of fully assuming control of the vehicle with any degree of safety?

    They should be banned. A driver who can’t keep his car in lane on the highway shouldn’t be driving.

    • 0 avatar

      I learned to drive in the 1980s. Every car I drove had power steering and power (front disc) brakes, and automatic or a fully-synchronized manual trans.

      My father learned to drive in the 50s. Until 1977, every car he owned had non-power steering. His first car with front disc brakes was a Euro 1972 Ford Escort.

      Was he a better driver than I? Hard to say. However, everyone of his generation had to possess considerably more skill and considerably less ADD to successfully pilot these vehicles. Even the smaller cars of my father’s youth, the Beetle and Corvair, which took less physical effort, had, as we all know, some unorthodox traits the driver needed to be mindful of.

      This was all academic to me until I drove a BASE 1966 Mustang five years ago. My first time with the trifecta of nonpower steering, nonpower brakes, AND a non-synchro first. Non-synchro in a US car in 1966!!!! Who knew?

      In 1966, this was a pretty easy car to drive–and yet, it required a lot of attention. Driving this car was a revelation…

      Among the cars my father owned before I was born, were a 49 Ford, a mid-50s Plymouth, a full-size 59 Chevy, and several VW Beetles–typical cars in the US. Try talking and texting in one of those

      My takeaway is, that if you have teens, the BEST thing you can do is find some old car like that Mustang or a Beetle or even an early Miata or an 80s VW or Honda or Japanese pick-up, and teach them to drive on that. Just take your kid, the two of you, on lightly trafficked roads and use it to teach them the basics of driving. It will leave a very good first impression on them.

      Then, make sure their first car, whether you or they get it, has a manual trans. That is the best deterrent to driving and texting, or driving and talking on cell-phone.

    • 0 avatar
      SCE to AUX

      @DC Bruce: Very well said.

  • avatar

    Yesterday, as I was turning right at a light, there were two SUVs in the next lane over and proceeding ahead. Trouble was, the SUV in front, some Nissan, probably a Rogue, kept hitting the brakes, and fortunately, the driver of the SUV behind the Nissan was paying attention! It occurred to me that there were a couple manhole covers ahead of the Nissan, and that my last car’s Forward Collision Warning system, a radar-based system, had gone bonkers a couple times in similar situations. So my guess is that the auto-brake in the Nissan was overreacting to something.

    And a week or two ago, I had the first auto-brake false alarm in my Accord; I was turning out of my street after a school bus had gone by when going to work, and all of a sudden, the BRAKE warning flashed on my HUD and IP, and the car hit the brakes! Fortunately, it took me less than a second to realize what was happening and I hit the gas to override the auto-brake, and fortunately there wasn’t anyone behind me. Somehow, the radar picked up the rear of the bus, and the camera “saw” the bus, and between the two inputs, the system obviously thought I was too close to the bus! IIRC, when I let off the gas and set the adaptive cruise (33mph in the 25 zone, and let the car handle the speed), the car didn’t activate the auto-brake again.

    You just have to be aware of the systems in the vehicle, and what they might do! The low-speed follow functionality of the ACC is good when the freeway suddenly goes to a stop, and I have to dig my phone out of my pocket to see where the accident is if the traffic function in my onboard navigation system isn’t indicating anything — otherwise the phone stays in my pocket, and even during stop-and-go, I’m still looking ahead more than down at the phone, and my right foot is always poised over the brake pedal unless I’m touching the throttle to have the car start forward again after it comes to a stop for more than a second or two, after which time, the LSF deactivates.

    • 0 avatar

      Lol, I read your story twice and I’m still not sure what all went down. Seems to me dealing with the over abundance of these safety nannies we are just trading one driving skill set for another

      • 0 avatar

        The TL;DR was that I saw what could’ve been a false alarm with the auto-brake on the Nissan SUV, and my own newer car had the same thing happen for the first time. Occasionally, posts on here seem to indicate that these false alarms are regular occurrences.

        And yes, we almost have to learn how to react to the overreactions of the nannies as we drive down the street staring at our phones!

  • avatar

    I get bored watching professionals play sports. No way can I stay engaged watching my car drive itself. Until I can take a nap while the car delivers me safely to my destination, I’ll take the wheel, thanks.

  • avatar

    The drivers’ aids that cause trouble are the ones that are imperfect implementations of full autonomy. They work most of the time but drivers still are expected to maintain full concentration so that they can take over when the aids fail. This is insanity. People are not wired to work this way. They will pay attention when immediately necessary but cannot maintain concentration over extended periods when everything goes well. Rather than admit that the basic model is inherently flawed, the industry’s “solution” is to punish drivers for behaving like human beings.

    Our newest vehicle is a 2014 Toyota Sienna. (The others are a 2013 Focus and a 2008 G37.) Two interesting possibilities to replace both the G37 and the Focus are the Golf R and the upcoming Mazda3 turbo (which I think of as a poor man’s Golf R). Technically, either would be a big step up. However, I ask myself if the nag features would prove to be so annoying that I would rather keep what we already have. Building new models that are less attractive than their predecessors isn’t the way to encourage new car sales.

    • 0 avatar

      All you have to do is to open your owner’s manual and read all the conditions and warnings about these nannies. And suddenly you realize – your manufacturer expects these things to work only in the most perfect conditions. Any deviation can cause them to incorrectly compute what is happening on the road

    • 0 avatar


      “This is insanity.”

      You’re absolutely right. Are we really supposed to believe that the average driver is going to keep full attention on driving while using these things? I suspect that the main reason people use automated driving functions is because they perceive it as allowing them to focus on things other than driving. Meanwhile they are entrusting their lives (and the lives of those around them) to electronic systems with the driving skill of a five year old.

      • 0 avatar


        Even if the driver is conscientious, it goes against human nature for him to pay constant, close attention when nothing happens. Rather quickly, his mind will wander. Then, when there is a failure, he will be taken by surprise.

        What’s worse about these systems is that, instead of controlling the car the way we used to, it’s become the driver’s job to prevent a catastrophe when one of the systems goes nuts.

  • avatar

    Thank you for making it clear that the flaws in adaptive driving tech are fundamental.

    We are far down this road, however.

    The new normal is a smartphone sitting in a holder near the top of the dash, right where it interferes with a view of the road, and a touch screen.

    Used to be that it was against the law to put anything on the dash that would block a view of the road. Those who promote and sell smartphone holders did not overcome that position through research and argument, so far as I know. They went ahead because they could, and flipped the bird to the rest of us.

    Same story with the touch screen. I used to be able to feel my way around the buttons in the center of the dash. Not possible with a touch screen. The manufacturers touted touch screens as something new, but never demonstrated that they were a better idea. They did it because they needed something to sell tech-addled consumers, because they could, and to hell with safety.

    What bugs me is the lack of accountability before and after the fact.

  • avatar

    Ironically the picture is a Volvo with almost no physical controls.

  • avatar

    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…)

  • avatar

    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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