Why driverless car tech is ruining your driving skills

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Surveys have shown consumers are fond of semi-autonomous features because they take the stress out of stop-and-go traffic and alleviate the monotony of long trips. But the freedom afforded by the new aids has invited abuse by drivers who treat the technology as if it’s fully capable of taking control, with little or no human input necessary. YouTube videos have emerged showing daredevil drivers hopping in the back seat as they trick the technology to believe they have hands on the wheel.

A federal investigation into the fatality last year in a Tesla Model S traveling in semi-autonomous Autopilot mode showed the driver had his hands on the wheel for just 25 seconds in the final 37 minutes before crashing into a semi. Tesla, which was cleared of responsibility by safety regulators, has modified Autopilot to require more driver input.

“At a very basic level, consumers don’t have any idea of how these systems work because they’re all named something different and they all function differently,” said Greg Brannon, director of automotive engineering and industry relations at the American Automobile Association.

Although AAA is urging automakers and regulators to come up with standard terms and parameters for semi-autonomous features, that conflicts with automakers desire to develop and market unique systems and seek an edge over competitors.

Some manufacturers are pushing the boundaries of safety to make their cars appear more advanced, Wakefield said, by fielding systems that allow drivers to keep their hands off the wheel for too long before a chime and dashboard light remind them to take hold again.

“The idea that you can take your hands off the wheel for 15 seconds and the driver is still in control, that’s not realistic,” said Lund, of IIHS. “If they’re taking their hands off for 15 seconds, then they’re doing some other things.”

Owner’s manuals

It’s difficult for drivers to understand what driver-assist systems can and can’t do because automakers sometimes send mixed signals. The seldom-read owner’s manual takes a cautious approach to explaining the aids because corporate lawyers water down wording to avoid exposing automakers to legal liability, AAA’s Brannon said.

Another risk, Lund warns, is that drivers become so accustomed to the aids that they forget when getting into older vehicles or rental cars that aren’t equipped with the technology.

Even if a driver hops into an unfamiliar car that is equipped with a system, performance varies widely by brand. Some adaptive cruise controls, for example, can bring a car to a full stop during low-speed driving, but not at highway speeds.

“So a driver may become accustomed to it working in town, but not realize that above speeds of 50 miles per hour, it’s not going to bring the vehicle to a stop,” Brannon said. “And that could end badly.”

This post was originally published by Bloomberg | Quint

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