The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has said it is developing a new rating system to evaluate the existing safeguards found inside vehicles equipped with partial automation. Considering how commonplace advanced driving aids have become, you might be thinking this was long overdue. However, insurers were blindly praising advanced driving suites a few years ago — until they actually started testing them in earnest.
As luck would have it, there’s been mounting research supporting claims modern automotive tech encourages drivers to tune out and become distracted. While this wouldn’t be a big deal if the relevant features all functioned perfectly, the reality is that most are far less effective than advertised and practically all of them run the risk of being completely undone by inclement weather or poor lighting. Confusingly, the IIHS believes the best solution here is to make sure systems constantly monitor the driver to ensure the driver is constantly monitoring the system.
It’s not the first time we’ve heard safety groups recommend drivers be constantly bombarded with alerts to promote safety, including the IIHS. The preferred industry (and sometimes government) solution for distracting touchscreens and lackluster safety suites also hasn’t been to remove them until they’re redesigned to be better. Instead, companies have begun installing a series of electronic warnings that go off whenever a motorist loses focus or the system senses it’s about to fail. Some of the most advanced (relatively speaking) driving systems have even incorporated driver-monitoring cameras that track eye movements as a way to inform the car when they’re not paying sufficient attention.
Insurers and automakers have both discussed how to integrate modern driver monitoring protocols into vehicle coverage. Several have even gone so far as to launch partnerships offering customers discounts for testing out these programs.
As for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, it’s taking a multifaceted approach in rating the efficacy of semi-autonomous systems using oversimplified terms like “good, acceptable, marginal or poor.” While you might assume this pertains wholly to how well the safety system functions after some crash testing, driver monitoring is actually an essential part of the equation. The IIHS said that systems must ensure that a “driver’s eyes are directed at the road and their hands are either on the wheel or ready to grab it at all times” if a vehicle is to have any hope of achieving a good rating.
To earn a good rating, systems should use multiple types of alerts to quickly remind the driver to look at the road and return their hands to the wheel when they’ve looked elsewhere or left the steering unattended for too long. Evidence shows that the more types of alerts a driver receives, the more likely they will notice them and respond. These alerts must begin and escalate quickly. Alerts might include chimes, vibrations, pulsing the brakes or tugging on the driver’s seat belt. The important thing is that the alerts are delivered through more channels and with greater urgency as time passes.
If the driver fails to respond, the system should slow the vehicle to a crawl or stop, as well as notify a manufacturer concierge who can call emergency services if necessary. Once this escalation occurs, the driver should be locked out of the system for the remainder of the drive, until the engine is switched off and started again.
The criteria also include certain requirements for automated lane changes, [adaptive cruise control] and lane centering. All automated lane changes should be initiated or confirmed by the driver, for instance. When traffic ahead causes ACC to bring the vehicle to a complete stop, it should not automatically resume if the driver is not looking at the road or the vehicle has been stopped for too long. And the lane centering feature should encourage the driver to share in the steering rather than switching off automatically whenever the driver adjusts the wheel, which effectively discourages them from participating in the driving.
Truth be told, some of these aren’t bad ideas and force more control back into the hands of the driver and I’m absolutely elated that IIHS has come to the seemingly obvious conclusion that advanced driving aids simply don’t work as advertised, making direct claims that marketing has been intentionally misleading. But its plan to launch a rating system also feels like an attempt to maintain relevance as the industry comes to terms with the new technologies.
“Partial automation systems may make long drives seem like less of a burden, but there is no evidence that they make driving safer,” said IIHS President David Harkey. “In fact, the opposite may be the case if systems lack adequate safeguards.”
“Nobody knows when we’ll have true self-driving cars, if ever. As automakers add partial automation to more and more vehicles, it’s imperative that they include effective safeguards that help drivers keep their heads in the game.”
Though the proposed safety nets are also more or less what the industry is already supporting — enhanced driver monitoring. Improvements to the systems themselves almost seem like an afterthought, though IIHS attempted to explain that.
Researchers said that the chip shortage has made it exceptionally difficult to procure enough vehicles for comprehensive testing. Despite the institute’s focus on driver monitoring, it actually needs to test vehicles to determine how each system functions. This makes your author hopeful, especially considering the IIHS has been grown fairly critical of how inconsistent advanced driving aids have been in the past. But the new rating system still appears to be preoccupied with how modern safety suites interact with the driver, rather than how well they function on their own.
Some of that will undoubtedly be good for keeping people who are mistakenly under the belief that some vehicles can drive themselves from engaging in genuinely stupid behavior. But the proposed solutions sound like they’re going to make tomorrow’s vehicles extremely annoying to drive and run the risk of encouraging data-monitoring habits I would argue have already crossed the line.
That ultimately makes the latest IIHS initiative a little strange. The group has clearly identified advanced driving aids as boasting some glaring weak points and has likewise asserted that automakers have advanced them using horribly misleading marketing. So then why is the overriding solution not to revaluate the individual systems themselves when even the lead researchers have come to the conclusion that they’re getting in the way of people’s ability to drive effectively?
“The way many of these systems operate gives people the impression that they’re capable of doing more than they really are,” said IIHS Research Scientist Alexandra Mueller. “But even when drivers understand the limitations of partial automation, their minds can still wander. As humans, it’s harder for us to remain vigilant when we’re watching and waiting for a problem to occur than it is when we’re doing all the driving ourselves.”
[Image: General Motors]
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