How ready are you when vehicle safety technology fails?

15 August 2019

Picture this: you’re driving along the highway on cruise control on a beautiful, sunny day relying on the built-in technology in your car to make sure you stay between the lines and don’t get too close to the vehicle in front of you. Then there’s an unexpected beep and a flash on your 10-inch video console. What do you do and how fast can you do it?

Those are two of the questions researchers at the Mineta Institute at San Jose State University in California were interested in studying. They put 40 people through a 30-minute driving simulation during which the semi-autonomous technology many of us are used to relying on every day was disengaged. They wanted answers to other questions, too, like — How much time would people need to successfully take back control of their vehicles or would they even be able to? Do people of different ages react differently? How accurately would they be able to recollect what they did? And what are the implications for future vehicle safety standards, road design, and public policy?

Since the study only involved 40 people, the findings aren’t definitive. But it’s interesting food for thought as many of us drive or know people who drive – whether for work, commuting or other daily activities. And, our vehicles are becoming more and more technically sophisticated. In fact, younger drivers may not even recall a time when vehicles were fully manually operated.

The simulation involved measuring response time to get a vehicle back under control when the technology was disengaged and the distances a vehicle drifted from the centre line on a straightaway and on an S curve before the driver took back control. The drift distance was also compared to when the driver had control of the vehicle and when the technology was guiding the vehicle. Drivers were tested at a low speed (55 mph) and a high speed (65 mph). Afterwards, the drivers were asked to grade themselves on how they did.

Here are some of the key findings:

  • Of the three age groups (18 to 35, 35 to 55, and 55 to 65) involved in the study, the oldest group performed “best” in terms of bringing the vehicle back under control quickest and with the least amount of drift.
  • Even though all the drivers received both an audio and a visual cue when the technology was disengaged, only 50 percent reported seeing the visual cue on the central video console.
  • Almost 70 percent of drivers experienced unintentional lane departures after the technology was disconnected. However, only 1 driver reported staying in the lane. Drivers were less than 50 percent accurate in recalling what happened. They had a bias towards thinking they were “successful” in not departing from the lane.
  • Drivers had better results at lower speeds. After technology disengagement, they were able to get the vehicle under control faster and with less drift at lower speeds.

There’s no doubt that semi-autonomous technology has positive benefits, like:

  • Providing drivers with a better driving experience
  • Affording more people greater mobility
  • Fuel savings through optimized braking and throttling, and
  • Potential safety improvements since 94 percent of crashes in the US are attributable to human factors

But, as this study indicates, the benefits of technology also come with some drawbacks like:

  • Drivers may not recognize the visual and aural cues of technology disengagement and so don’t take back control of the vehicle quickly enough
  • Drivers may not react appropriately (e.g., accelerating rather than decelerating) even if they realize disengagement has occurred, or
  • Drivers may be overconfident in their own skills

Society generally relies on laws, regulations and policy development to address safety risks. Whether that is to come in the form dedicated lanes for semi-autonomous vehicles, speed limits for when technology is engaged, driver awareness training, standardization of semi-autonomous technology among vehicle manufacturers or some other approach is still to be seen. But, since technology advancements usually outpace the creation of a legal framework, drivers need to be particularly vigilant, recognize and address their shortcomings and adapt.