Why Driver-Assist Systems Are Flawed


Automated systems like Tesla's Autopilot don't involve the driver enough.

Sometimes, technology evolves at a faster rate than the regulations needed to responsibly manage it. Take social media, for instance. It had been around for well over a decade before various data privacy regulations were introduced in response to multiple cases of personal user data being used maliciously. It seems that modern driver assistance features could be at a similar crossroads. For the last few years, we've lauded the ability of modern vehicles to take over key functions that were traditionally fully driver-controlled.

Now, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has released new safety regulations for these systems. The IIHS says that greater driver engagement should be a priority, the catch-22 being that ever-improving technologies cause drivers to become too uninvolved in the process.


"Unfortunately, the more sophisticated and reliable automation becomes, the more difficult it is for drivers to stay focused on what the vehicle is doing," claims David Harkey, president of the IIHS. "That's why systems should be designed to keep drivers actively engaged." Currently, the SAE International classification system for driver aids ranges from 0 (no automation at all) to 5 (a fully self-driving machine), but Level 2 is the maximum available in current vehicles.

The features fitted to modern cars include adaptive cruise control (the car controls the speed based on the distance from the vehicle in front), active lane changing, and lane keeping assist. The IIHS' concern is that these features should be designed to encourage constant attentiveness from the driver, even if the car can execute a lane change on its own.

IIHS Research Scientist Alexandra Mueller says: "these systems are amazing feats of engineering, but they all suffer from the same problem: they don't account enough for the behavior of the human being behind the wheel." The IIHS' recommendations include a more robust system for monitoring driver behavior, with rapidly escalating visual, audible, and even vibration alerts.


If the driver doesn't respond quickly, the car should initiate a sequence of slowing down and pulling to the shoulder. If the driver is found to have disengaged for too long, the IIHS recommends that he or she should be prevented from accessing the Level 2 driving system for a certain period of time. Essentially, IIHS researches argue that modern cars simply assume a driver is engaged when these safety systems are active.

The researchers also pointed to a fatal Tesla crash involving the marque's Autopilot system in a Model X. The driver was found to have been playing a game on his phone when his car crashed into a highway divider.

In essence, the IIHS sees the value of driver safety aids but recommends that the systems integrate the driver as part of the process more than they do presently. Mueller concluded by saying: "because these systems still aren't capable of driving without human supervision, they have to help prevent the driver from falling out of the loop."

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