Despite the automotive industry collectively promising to commence deliveries of self-driving cars in 2019, autonomous vehicles have remained test platforms for technologies that don’t yet seem ready for mass consumption. Public perception of the concept has also endured a few setbacks after several fatalities involving partially autonomous vehicles received national media attention. Today, the relevant technologies have failed to mature as swiftly as indicated and there are a whole host of legal ramifications to contend with.
Selling an automobile that’s marketed as being able to drive itself (even partially) are exposing automakers to a whole new demographic of lawsuits, so they’re desperate to install failsafe measures that places the onus of responsibility back onto the driver. Their current favorite is driver-monitoring cameras, which the American Automobile Association (AAA) likewise believes are probably the best solution. The outlet recently shared the results of a study attempting to determine which driver-engagement systems worked best and decided that in-cabin cameras were the leading choice in a batch of bad options.
Though AAA expressed some hesitancy in making the determination. While tepidly endorsing driver-facing cameras, suggesting they were better than systems relying on hand placement, the outlet expressed concerns that they all possessed sizable blind spots.
“The key to a safe active driving assistance system is effective driver monitoring that can’t be easily tricked,” said Greg Brannon, director of AAA’s automotive engineering and industry relations. “Vehicle technology has the potential to improve roadway safety, but the last thing we want are ineffective features in the hands of uninformed or overconfident drivers.”
“Regardless of brand names or marketing claims, vehicles available for purchase today are not capable of driving themselves,” he continued. “Driver monitoring systems are a good first step to preventing deadly crashes, but they are not foolproof.”
AAA’s testing was done in a natural environment on a 24-mile loop of a limited-access toll road in Southern California. Evaluated vehicles included a 2021 Cadillac Escalade (equipped with Super Cruise and a driver-facing infrared camera), 2021 Subaru Forester (equipped with EyeSight and Driver Focus using a driver-facing infrared camera), 2021 Hyundai Santa Fe (with Highway Driving Assist and no driver-monitoring camera), and a 2020 Tesla Model 3 (equipped with Autopilot from before the manufacturer began including in-cabin cameras).
Drivers and spotters were all AAA researchers and ran three different distracted driving scenarios. Number one entailed having the driver’s hands off the steering wheel, with the head up and the eyes gazing down. Number two involved hands being off the wheel with the head and eyes both angled down toward the center console. Meanwhile, number three used varied head and hand positioning in an effort to beat whatever system the vehicle had to determine when a driver had checked out.
Key findings included that the camera-based systems alerted disengaged drivers much sooner and were more persistent (annoying) than those detecting steering wheel movement and hand positioning. On average, the percent of time test drivers were engaged was approximately five times greater for camera-based systems than the steering-based systems.
AAA recommends that automakers opt for camera-based driver monitoring systems over steering wheel monitoring; however, more refinement is required to prevent driver distraction and misuse. Before releasing this report, AAA met with automakers to provide insight from the testing experience and specific recommendations for improvement.
Vehicles equipped with camera-based driver monitoring systems were significantly better at preventing each type of tested distraction scenario by issuing alerts faster and more persistently than a steering wheel system, no matter the external lighting conditions. On average, the percent of time test drivers were forced to focus on driving was five times greater when facing a camera than with steering wheel input.
Both driver monitoring types were prone to being intentionally fooled, although those using a camera were harder to trick. AAA test drivers attempted to stymie monitoring system alerts with periodic head or eye movement and manipulating the steering wheel. Each driver was given the discretion to develop their cheat strategy, and it should be noted that no external devices, tools, or aids were used.
I’ve been an advocate for AAA forever, even after my own membership lapsed, due to its general focus on consumer advocacy. It’s been fighting for the legal rights of motorists for longer than I’ve been alive. But I find it difficult to support any entity that’s encouraging the use of driver-facing cameras while consumer privacy is evaporating faster than a snow cone on the sun. It feels genuinely crazy that the solution to the failure of driver assistance features is putting a camera inside of every new vehicle so that the driver can be monitored in real time. If the systems worked as advertised, none of this should be necessary. This also opens the door to new privacy violations at a time when automakers are already transmitting your driving data back to base and dipping into your phone whenever possible.
It may likewise be worth pointing out the relevant spokespeople in this study aren’t the usual roster of lead researches, but people who bridge the gap between AAA and the industry. The study itself makes direct even mention that the group was working closely with automakers ahead of testing. Perhaps researchers simply wanted additional insights into how these systems worked. But I’m wondering about outside influence having played a factor, especially considering how critical the outlet has been on advanced driving aids in the past.
On the upshot, AAA has continued urging the industry to begin using a standardized nomenclature for modern vehicle technologies that are more representative of the true capabilities and limitations of advanced driving aids. As things currently stand, automakers are naming their systems whatever they please and often selecting titles that appear to hint at some level of self-driving capability. It also said that driver-facing cameras can still be fooled with some exaggerated neck stretching and would need to be refined before that would stop being an issue.
Driver attentiveness is important and there may be cause to implement devices that help keep motorists more focused on the road. But implementing those features after installing systems that have been shown to encourage lower response times in an emergency and confuse drivers as to the true limitations of their vehicle is absolute nonsense. If the industry is so worried about distracted driving, it should lean into campaigns designed to discourage phone use while behind the wheel and begin removing large, menu-driven touch screens from the center console of all future products.
Of course, then they wouldn’t be able to charge you for all this new tech or make the driver liable when it fails to prevent an accident.
[Image: General Motors]
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