A new study conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has shown that partial vehicle automation can lead to more distracted driving, once drivers have become accustomed to using the driving assistance features. 

Researchers from the IIHS and MIT, studied the driving behaviors of 20 Massachusetts-based civilian volunteers for a month-long period. The volunteers were split up into two groups, each of which was given the temporary use of two different vehicles that both had newer driving assistance features, partially automating certain aspects of the driving process. 

One group was given a vehicle equipped with adaptive cruise control (Range Rover Evoque), while the other group was given a vehicle that had both ACC and a feature named Pilot Assist (Volvo S90). These technologies help regulate the spacing of a vehicle relative to the sides of a lane and to the other traffic in a lane. ACC also regulates vehicle speed. 

The Society of Automotive Engineers defines 6 levels of driving automation, and this scale has been adopted by the U.S. Department of Transportation. On this scale, 0 equals a fully manual vehicle, while 5 equals a fully autonomous vehicle. Adaptive cruise control is considered a level 1 system, while Pilot Assist is a level 2 system, which is the highest level used in automotive production today. 

What the researchers observed was that at first, there was little to no change in how often a driver would lose focus, and disengage from the driving process. But, after about a month spent with the vehicles, and after getting accustomed to using the partial driving automation systems, the volunteers were more than 12 times as likely to remove their hands from the steering wheel, compared to driving in a fully manual vehicle. 

According to the lead author of the study, IIHS Senior Research Scientist Ian Reagan: “Drivers were more than twice as likely to show signs of disengagement after a month of using Pilot Assist compared with the beginning of the study.”

The change was apparently more dramatic in the behavior of the Volvo S90 drivers, which was the vehicle with both ACC and Pilot Assist, suggesting that more automation might give drivers a false sense of security. 

It’s important to note that these technologies are not meant to fully replace the driver at this time, the person behind the wheel is still required to be in control of the vehicle. While the technology works quite well when it comes to managing speed and position, there are many common roadway features that these systems still struggle to negotiate sufficiently. 

This is important because there have been a number of motor vehicle collision cases involving partial automation technologies, that have demonstrated that the technology still has a way to go before being perfected. 

According to Ian Reagan, “Crash investigators have identified driver disengagement as a major factor in every probe of fatal crashes involving partial automation we’ve seen.”

The researchers are calling for more sophisticated ways of ensuring that drivers are still engaged in the driving process, and paying attention to the road. 

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