Autopilot technologies may erode driving skills

Tesla last year implemented limits on drivers' ability to go hands-free while using its Autopilot system.
Tesla last year implemented limits on drivers' ability to go hands-free while using its Autopilot system.PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW YORK • If your car can hit the brakes in an emergency and check your blind spots, will that make you complacent? Increasingly, carmakers are worrying it may.

Driver-assist technology that keeps cars in their lanes, maintains a safe distance from other vehicles, warns of unseen traffic and slams the brakes to avoid crashes are spreading from luxury cars to everyday Hondas, Nissans and Chevys.

But these aids are degrading driving skills. Mr Adrian Lund, president of the Insurance Institute For Highway Safety, said: "Everything we do that makes the driving task a little easier means that people are going to pay a little less attention when they're driving."

United States road deaths jumped 14 per cent over the last two years, with more than 40,000 people dying in crashes last year. While speeding and more congested roads bear some of the blame, distraction is another key culprit.

Data released by the government show manipulation of handheld devices while driving, including texting or surfing the Web.

The semi-autonomous features that are the building blocks of tomorrow's driverless cars were designed to compensate for inattentiveness behind the wheel.

Instead, they may be enabling drivers to place too much faith in the new technology.

Companies are scrambling to find ways to keep drivers engaged, said Mr Mark Wakefield, managing director and head of the automotive practice at consultant AlixPartners.

General Motors is installing eye-tracking technology on the Super Cruise feature coming to Cadillac models this year, which allows drivers to take their hands off the wheel but needs them to watch the road.

Nissan's ProPilot Assist keeps the car centred and brings it to a stop if the driver goes more than 30 seconds without grabbing the wheel.

Tesla last year implemented limits on drivers' ability to go hands- free while using its Autopilot system.

Consumers recognise the perils of relinquishing control, even if they do not always heed the advice.

Fifty-seven per cent said driver-assist technologies will eventually erode driving skills in an informal survey of 847 visitors to researcher Kelley Blue Book's car- shopping website, conducted for Bloomberg News last month.

"Without question, technology is making drivers lazier and less attentive," said Mr Mike Harley, group managing editor at Kelley Blue Book.

A University of Michigan study showed that may already be the case. It recently conducted research for a carmaker concerned with how people are using blind-spot detection systems that alert drivers with chimes and warning lights when another car is in a difficult-to-see area.

The study found a significant increase in drivers failing to look over their shoulder to check for themselves when changing lanes.

Surveys have shown consumers are fond of semi-autonomous features because they take the stress out of stop-and-go traffic and alleviate the monotony of long trips.

A federal investigation into the fatality last year in a Tesla Model S travelling in semi-autonomous Autopilot mode showed the driver had his hands on the wheel for just 25 seconds in the final 37 minutes before crashing.

Tesla, which was cleared of responsibility by safety regulators, has modified Autopilot to require more driver input.

Though the American Automobile Association (AAA) is urging carmakers and regulators to come up with standard terms and parameters for semi-autonomous features, that conflicts with carmakers' desire to develop unique systems and seek an edge over competitors.

Another risk is that drivers become so accustomed to the aids that they forget to be more careful when getting into older vehicles or rental cars that are not equipped with the technology.

Even if a driver gets into an unfamiliar car equipped with a system, performance varies by brand.

Some adaptive cruise controls, for example, can bring a car to a full stop during low-speed driving, but not at highway speeds.

"So a driver may become accustomed to it working in town, but not realise that above speeds of 80kmh, it's not going to bring the vehicle to a stop," said Mr Greg Brannon, director of automotive engineering and industry relations at the AAA.

"And that could end badly."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 12, 2017, with the headline 'Autopilot technologies may erode driving skills'. Print Edition | Subscribe