We’re sure you’ve seen your fair share of people sleeping behind the wheel of Teslas running on Autopilot, but those are just extreme examples of a problem that according to a new study is actually quite widespread. This apparently especially true for two specific automated driving systems, which are some of the most advanced on the market.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) recently told us that its researches surveyed drivers Tesla Autopilot, Cadillac Super Cruise and Nissan / Infiniti ProPilot Assist. It found that drivers of vehicles equipped with these semi-autonomous driving systems were more likely to do things other than drive while at the wheel (compared to people driving vehicles that don’t have such systems).
Based on its findings, the IIHS notes that around half of all Super Cruise users and 42 percent of Tesla Autopilot users deemed it okay to take their eyes off the road and perform other activities while the car drove on its own. Interestingly, also around 40 percent of those questioned said they triggered a lockout, which is when the vehicle will stop on its own after the driver fails to take control after repeatedly being prompted to do so.
The last time I tried doing this in an Autopilot-equipped Tesla Model 3, simply to see what the vehicle did, it took less than a minute from the first warning that steering input needed to be applied to the vehicle coming to a complete stop on its own, with its hazard lights flashing to potentially alert other drivers that you’re having a problem.
Some people try to trick the system through various means, so that it is tricked into thinking you are holding the wheel. In some older vehicles, you could jam an orange between the steering wheel prongs and the rim, and the pressure it exerted was enough to make the system think you were actually holding the wheel, thus allowing indefinite hands-free use of the system (which is not the way such systems are currently intended to be used and is very dangerous).
According to IIHS President David Harkey, “the big-picture message here is that the early adopters of these systems still have a poor understanding of the technology’s limits. But we also see clear differences among the three owner populations. It’s possible that system design and marketing are adding to these misconceptions.”
The study also found that Super Cruise and Autopilot users had a much higher propensity to take hands off the wheel while the vehicle was driving, leaving the driving to the computers, at least out of the three systems. Nissan ProPilot users seemed more conservative in this regard, although it may also have something to do with the types of people that end up in the driver’s seats of vehicles from these three quite different brands.
IIHS Research Scientist Alexandra Mueller noted that
These results from frequent users of three different partial automation systems once again drive home the need for robust, multifaceted safeguards. Many of these drivers said they had experiences where they had to suddenly take over the driving because the automation did something unexpected, sometimes while they were doing something they were not supposed to.
The broad acceptance of attention reminders and system lockouts suggests not only that they have the potential to make it safer to use partial automation, but also that they could be implemented more widely to help combat driver distraction in general.