Self-driving tech is making us worse drivers, says study

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Words: Matthew Hansen
20 Nov 2020

The motoring world is in the midst of an awkward period. Car manufacturers are trying to test and roll out new autonomous and semi-autonomous driving tech that regulators aren’t all too prepared for. Full autonomy is the goal for most, but for now the space is a hodgepodge of ambition and guinea-pig-style testing.

A fresh study conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s AgeLab in the US has concluded that semi-autonomous tech is making drivers more careless and disengaged behind the wheel.

The study gave 20 Massachusetts drivers one of two cars to use for a month — the first a Range Rover Evoque and the second a Volvo S90. The former was only fitted with adaptive cruise control (capable of slowing and accelerating your car to the flow of traffic without touching the throttle or brake pedal), while the latter added in Volvo’s self-steering Pilot Assist system making it a level 2 autonomous vehicle to the Evoque’s level 1.

The IIHS found that drivers in the level 2 autonomous vehicle were more likely to display ‘habits of disengagement’ compared to those in the level 1 autonomous vehicle. This included things like lifting both hands off the wheel, using their phones, and playing with the car’s controls.

And not by just a little bit, either. According to IIHS senior research scientist Ian Reagan, “drivers were more than twice as likely to show signs of disengagement after a month of using [Volvo’s] Pilot Assist compared with the beginning of the study. 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.”

Drivers in the Evoque, meanwhile, did show some traits of disengagement, but to a significantly lesser degree. They were “more likely to look at or pick up a cell phone while using the assistance technology than when driving manually,” the study said, adding that the tendency for drivers to do this “increased substantially as they grew familiar” with radar cruise control.

“On the other hand, increased familiarity did not result in more frequent texting or other kinds of cell phone manipulation known to increase crash risk. Unlike drivers using Pilot Assist, drivers using ACC in both the Evoque and the S90 weren’t any more likely to remove both hands from the wheel than when driving manually,” the study added.

The biggest inherent flaw of unleashing this kind of technology on the public is that a large chunk of people who buy into cars that live on the cutting edge of self-driving tech are going to want to push it to its limit.

Earlier this year Tesla debuted its ‘full self driving’ beta; an early access taste of its system’s full potential for hungry early adopters. Understanding that there would be buyers tempted to treat it as a full self-driving system without adhering to existing road rules, Tesla issued a stern warning.

“Full Self-Driving is in early limited access Beta and must be used with additional caution. It may do the wrong thing at the worst time, so you must always keep your hands on the wheel and pay extra attention to the road. Do not become complacent,” it said in a disclaimer shown on each car.

One could suggest that the same temptations exist for those who buy performance cars and consider breaking the speed limit. But there’s a critical difference — those breaking the speed limit to test a performance car’s limits by and large do so knowingly. Those interacting with a self-driving semi-autonomous system, meanwhile, do so while surrounded by a mixture of messages; manufacturers keenly suggesting how their car ‘basically drives itself’ while regulators and studies tend to say otherwise. At least for now.

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