Study: The more you automate driving, the less drivers focus

November 20, 2020

Tyson Fisher


Drivers’ overreliance on automation is diverting their attention away from the task at hand, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

IIHS and MIT teamed up to study the effects of automation on drivers’ engagement of the most important task: driving. As drivers become more comfortable with new, advanced automation features, they start to lose focus or take their hands off the wheel.

Disengagement from driving does not start right away, the research finds. When test subjects first started driving the vehicle with automation, there were not many signs of losing focus. This was true whether the driver was operating the vehicle manually or with either adaptive cruise control or pilot-assist automation.

However, after about a month of familiarizing themselves with automation features, drivers began to disengage. Drivers with pilot assist and adaptive cruise control technology show more dramatic disengagement than drivers with only adaptive cruise control, according to IIHS.

On the other hand, when drivers with both technologies available used only adaptive cruise control, there was not much change in engagement. It is the introduction of pilot assist when problems begin. Only four of 10 drivers used adaptive cruise control alone after familiarizing themselves with pilot assist.

Past research indicates that adaptive cruise control has far-reaching safety benefits. However, when more advanced features like pilot assist come into play, similar effects on safety seem to disappear.

“This study supports our call for more robust ways of ensuring the driver is looking at the road and ready to take the wheel when using Level 2 systems,” IIHS Senior Research Scientist Ian Reagan said in a statement. “It shows some drivers may be getting lulled into a false sense of security over time.”

IIHS’ latest study on automation highlights safety concerns behind automation, particularly pilot assist systems. On Nov. 4, the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association sent a letter to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration expressing concerns over Tesla’s Full Self-Driving System.

In its letter to NHTSA, OOIDA pointed out that the majority of truck-involved crashes are caused by passenger vehicles. Consequently, misleading technology like Tesla’s Full Self-Driving system jeopardizes the safety of truckers and other motorists.

“Therefore, we are dismayed with the Administration’s lack of oversight of automated driving technologies currently deployed on public roadways that jeopardize truckers’ safety,” OOIDA President Todd Spencer said in the letter. “The use of unfinished and unproven automated technologies poses a significant threat to small-business truckers, and we urge you to take action to protect all road users and promote greater transparency and oversight of their development.”

OOIDA is not alone. Responding to the IIHS study, Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety echoed OOIDA’s call for more automation standards.

“Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety applauds IIHS for studying this evolving road safety threat,” the safety group stated. “The findings also underscore the need to create minimum performance safety standards for advanced driver assistance systems including (adaptive cruise control) and (lane centering assist), an essential safeguard to help ensure that the technology performs as expected.”

On the same day IIHS released its study results, NHTSA issued a news release seeking public comment on automation safety principles.

Specifically, the agency is seeking comments on the potential development of a framework of principles to govern the safe behavior of automated driving systems in the future.

“While no ADS-equipped vehicle is available for sale to the public today and wide-scale deployment of ADS-equipped vehicles is likely years away, NHTSA and others have identified elements of a framework necessary for objectively defining and assessing ADS competence,” NHTSA said.

Automation has been classified as a range from Level 0 to Level 5. Level 0 refers to vehicles with no automation of any kind. Level 5 vehicles are fully self-driving without the need of driver presence. Fully self-driving with a driver present to take over does not start until Level 3. Currently, Level 2 is the highest available technology on the market, which demands complete driver attention. However, many drivers with pilot assist features have operated their vehicles as if it was a Level 3 or higher vehicle. LL