Two ways your smart car tech may be doing you more harm than good

By Claudia Assis

Self-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 in high-end cars to standard equipment in luxury models, even in new, less expensive vehicles today. today.

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

Throughout our more than 100-year history with automobiles, the driver was in the driving seat, said Tara Andringa, executive director of Partners for Automated Vehicle Education, or PAVE, a coalition of industry and nonprofit groups and academics. .

“There was no doubt about the pilot’s role,” Andringa said. “We envision a future where the vehicle is in control, and we’re kind of in that in-between right now,” she said.

“It can be confusing for people. We really need to educate the public and be clear that any car available for purchase by consumers today requires a driver who is attentive at all times.

Automatic emergency braking and lane-keep assist are among the most common features of new vehicles today, and among those that have been around the longest.

Still, the AAA travel and leisure group found that emergency braking goes by about 40 different names depending on the automaker, and lane-keep assist has about 19 different names. Other systems also come with multiple names.

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

“AAA believes the industry needs to standardize the naming of advanced driver assistance systems,” said Greg Brannon, director of automotive engineering for AAA.

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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 functionality expectations.”

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 Collision Imminent Braking to describe the car’s ability to detect potential forward collisions.

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

“Ghost braking” and other issues

Being present for a certain period of time does not guarantee that a feature will work without problems.

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

Regulators have also opened dozens of investigations into Tesla Inc.’s (TSLA) Autopilot, with two of the most prominent probes examining why some Teslas appear to crash into emergency vehicles parked on freeways and hundreds complaints about this “phantom braking”. phenomenon.

In June, NHTSA released initial crash data and said the information will allow traffic safety regulators to “better identify emerging risks or trends and learn more about how these technologies are performing around the world.” real” and decide on future regulations.

‘Far from perfect’

Not all ADAS are the same, said University of Toronto engineering professor Birsen Donmez.

Forward collision warnings and emergency braking are “very effective,” Donmez said. Other technologies, however, are less efficient, and overall it’s important to keep in mind that “the systems are really far from perfect at this point,” Donmez said.

“Driving monitoring systems are the way to go, but they’re still in development,” she said.

Karl Brauer, an analyst at who regularly tests cars and describes himself as a “fanatic for anything car or motorcycle related,” has had a few close calls with ADAS features, including one as recent as week last .

A few years ago, a small SUV loaned to him for testing continued to warn of potential frontal collisions “a little more aggressively than necessary,” Brauer said.

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

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

Recently, while 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 doing so, tricked systems of the SUV that it was a roadblock. He feels that the incidents he’s seen with certain ADAS features “are actually not that rare,” he said.

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

Some of the systems essentially turn humans into “passive monitors who have to step in when automation fails, essentially putting humans on a task of vigilance,” said Donmez of the University of Toronto.

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

Until when is it too late?

Some of the earliest human attention experiments showed that attention begins to wane after about 20 or 30 minutes, after which researchers often see a drastic decline in the ability to continue paying attention and doing it well. .

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

An example of anticipatory behavior is when a driver expects a vehicle in front of him to change lanes based on his speed as he approaches a slower car, or slow down when the traffic lights braking of a few cars ahead light up.

“We know that skill is formed with riding experience,” Donmez said. “Whether drivers would lose this skill with prolonged use of this type of ADAS has not been tested, but it is possible,” she said. In aviation, skill loss with the use of automation has been a concern for some time, she said.

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

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

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

Like the insistent beep in Bauer’s SUV after the tree shadow error, automakers have found many ways to warn and urge drivers to stay in control of their vehicle at all times, and all manufacturers are seeking to make it clear that drivers must remain attentive. while using ADAS functions.

However, systems designed to control a driver’s attention when using automated systems aren’t perfect either.

Indeed, there are countless videos of drivers around the world trying to trick ADAS systems, for example trying to circumvent the hands-on-the-steering requirements by sticking objects on the steering wheels. Even more advanced surveillance systems, such as those that use cameras to track eye movements, can falter if drivers wear sunglasses.

Research is being done on tracking other physiological signals of distracted driving, such as more complex systems designed to measure heart rate or brain waves, but they have their drawbacks and their probes are still too intrusive to use. regularly.

And even the most accurate trackers would need to pinpoint the answer to a tricky question: what is the optional delay to alert the driver? In other words, decide how late it is.

“We need to make sure systems are designed with humans in mind, rather than what’s technologically feasible or advanced,” Donmez said. A unified name would be a step in the right direction, but it would only partially solve the problem.

Erosion of trust

ADAS features are really 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, she said.

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

Autopilot has long been criticized for involving abilities far beyond its actual capabilities.

“It makes the car look like it can drive itself,” and even though the company’s explicit disclaimers and all the fine print says otherwise, “when the name is so confusing to people, it’s That’s when we run into a huge security problem,” Andringa said. .

(MORE TO BE FOLLOWED) Dow Jones Newswires

09-03-22 1159ET

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