Two ways your smart car tech can do more harm than good

By Claudia Asis

Autonomous driving technology has many different and potentially confusing names

Electronic systems designed to help people drive and park their vehicles have been around for three decades, slowly moving from expensive extras on top-of-the-line cars to standard equipment on luxury and common models in even cheaper new vehicles today.

Advanced Driver Assistance Systems, or ADAS as these systems are known, have the potential to make the roads safer and life easier. However, there is growing concern that having too many names for the same underlying technology and too many expectations that features will work flawlessly can cause damage and erode public confidence in future AVs.

For all of our more than 100-year history with cars, the driver was in control, said Tara Andringa, executive director of Partners for Automated Vehicle Education, or PAVE, a coalition of industry and academic groups and nonprofits.

“There was no question about the role of the driver,” Andringa said. “We envision a future where the vehicle is in charge, and we’re at this middle ground right now,” he said.

“That can be confusing to people. We really need to educate the public and be clear that any car available for consumers to buy today requires a driver,” attentive at all times.

Automatic emergency braking and lane-keep assist are among the most common features in new vehicles today, and among the ones that have been available the longest.

However, travel and leisure group AAA found that emergency braking is called about 40 different things by automaker, and lane-keep assist goes by about 19 different names. Other systems also come under various names.

The same study found that ADAS is widespread, with 93% of cars available in 2018 having at least one ADAS function.

“AAA believes the industry should standardize the naming of advanced driver assistance systems,” said Greg Brannon, AAA’s director of automotive engineering.

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The different names confuse people about what “these complex systems actually do,” Brannon said. “Common naming is the first step in giving consumers a better understanding of performance and managing expectations around functionality.”

Even industry groups and road safety regulators have used different terminology to refer to the same underlying technology.

According to AAA, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has used at least three different technology names such as automatic emergency braking, dynamic braking system, and impending collision braking to describe the car’s ability to detect potential frontal collisions.

AAA and PAVE are part of a coalition of consumer safety organizations that have called on highway safety regulators to standardize the naming of features to reduce confusion. The coalition renewed its efforts this summer with an expanded set of proposed universal terms

‘Ghost braking’ and other issues

Being around for a while is no guarantee that a feature will run smoothly.

Earlier this year, U.S. safety regulators launched an investigation into Honda Motor Co.’s emergency braking after hundreds of drivers complained that certain sedans and SUVs braked for no apparent reason and while in motion. movement. Honda has said it is cooperating with the investigation.

Regulators have also opened dozens of investigations into Tesla Inc. (TSLA) Autopilot, with two of the most high-profile investigations looking into why some Teslas appear to crash into parked emergency vehicles on highways and hundreds of complaints about it.” phantom braking. freak.

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In June, the NHTSA released initial crash data and said the treasure will allow highway safety regulators to “better identify any emerging risks or trends and learn more about how these technologies work in the real world” and decide on future regulation. .

‘far from perfect’

Not all ADAS are created equal, said University of Toronto engineering professor Birsen Donmez.

Forward collision warnings and emergency braking are “pretty effective,” Donmez said. However, other technologies are less effective, and in general, it’s important to note that “systems are really far from perfect at this stage,” Donmez said.

“Driving monitoring systems are the way to go, but they are still under development,” he said.

Karl Brauer, an analyst at who regularly tests cars and describes himself as a “fan of anything car or motorcycle related,” has been close to a few ADAS features, one as recently as last week. .

A couple of years ago, a small SUV he was loaned for testing warned him about potential head-on collisions “a little more aggressive than necessary,” Brauer said.

Then, as Brauer was driving down a road where trees in the median cast shadows on the lanes, the truck’s warning beep sounded and the car began to slow down, appearing to mistake the shadows from the trees for an actual object in the road. highway.

At the time, the vehicle did not have the ability to come to a complete stop on its own, but Brauer remembers being concerned about that, thinking about the possibility of a rear-end collision caused by sudden braking.

Recently, driving a luxury SUV that debuted this fall, Brauer had another scare, this time caused by a truck in another lane that stopped and in the process tricked the SUV’s systems into thinking it was a roadblock. He feels that the incidents he has seen with some features of ADAS are “really not that uncommon,” he said.

It turns out that difficulty reacting to stationary vehicles and possible misfires on winding roads are examples of two known limitations of adaptive cruise control, another popular ADAS feature.

In essence, some of the systems turn humans into “passive monitors that need to intervene when automation fails, essentially putting humans on a surveillance duty,” said Donmez of the University of Toronto.

It turns out that researchers have known for some time that humans aren’t good at staying alert for long periods.

How late is too late?

Some of the earliest experiments on attention in humans have found that attention begins to falter after about 20 to 30 minutes, after which researchers often see drastic declines in the ability to continue to pay attention and do it well.

Donmez’s research has shown that people can become “more reactionary than anticipatory” when using some of the ADAS systems available today.

An example of anticipatory behavior is when a driver expects that a vehicle in front of him might change lanes based on his speed when approaching a slower moving car, or slow down when the brake lights of some cars come on. cars ahead.

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“We know that this skill is shaped by driving experience,” Donmez said. “Whether drivers would lose this ability with prolonged use of this type of ADAS has not been proven, but it is possible,” he said. In aviation, skill loss with the use of automation has been a concern for a while, she said. he said.

Donmez’s study was conducted in a driving simulator, with an equal number of novice and experienced drivers who were presented with a secondary task while simulating driving.

There were differences in the two groups for manual driving without automation, but that gap between novice drivers and experienced drivers widened when the simulator added some driving automation.

“We found that, compared to experienced drivers’ gazes, the duration of novice drivers’ gazes at the distraction task was more variable, longer,” and that novices were also less aware of curves and stretches of road. the simulated road.

Like the insistent beeping in Bauer’s SUV after the tree shadow bug, automakers have come up with many ways to warn and encourage drivers to be in control of their vehicle at all times, and every automaker they seek to make it clear that drivers must remain vigilant. while using the ADAS features.

However, systems designed to monitor driver attention while using automated systems are not perfect either.

In fact, there are countless videos of drivers around the world trying to fool ADAS systems, such as trying to get around hands-on-the-wheel requirements by sticking objects into steering wheels. Even the most advanced monitoring systems, like those that use cameras to track eye movement, can fail if drivers are wearing sunglasses.

There is ongoing research into tracking other physiological cues for distracted driving, such as more complex systems designed to measure heart rate or brain waves, but they have drawbacks and their probes are still too intrusive for regular use.

And even the most accurate trackers would need to pinpoint the answer to a thorny question: What is the optional time to alert the driver? In other words, decide how late is too late.

“We have to make sure that systems are designed with humans in mind, rather than what is technologically feasible or advanced,” Donmez said. The unified naming would be a step in the right direction, but it may only partially solve the problem.

eroding trust

ADAS features really are what can make our roads safer, said PAVE’s Andringa. The danger, however, is that people believe the technology is better than it is, she said.

The consistent naming campaign is part of that effort, he said.

Some of the names may be “intentionally confusing,” Andringa said. “The most obvious is Autopilot,” Tesla Inc.’s advanced driver assistance package.

Autopilot has long been criticized for implying capabilities far beyond its real-world abilities.

“It looks like the car can drive itself,” and even if the company’s explicit warnings and all the fine print say otherwise, “when the name is so confusing to people, that’s when we run into a big safety problem.” Andringa said. .

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08-31-22 0946ET

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