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Carmakers urged to boost driver focus in partially automated cars

Keith Laing
The Detroit News

Washington — Automakers should take measures to ensure drivers remain focused on the road in partially automated cars after several high-profile crashes, according to a new recommendations from a leading industry safety group.

Automakers should add failsafe methods of monitoring driver engagement and more effective ways of regaining the driver’s attention when it wanders, said the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which conducts safety testing and represents the insurance industry. 

The IIHS singled out Cadillac's Super Cruise system for praise, but says even it does not go far enough in making drivers pay attention.

Additionally, the IIHS said "designs should based on a principle of shared control, and they should have built-in limits that prevent them from being used on roads and under conditions where it isn’t safe to do so."

As part of that philosophy, partially automated systems shouldn’t change lanes or overtake other vehicles without driver input, the organization said. The systems should also be responsive to driver steering input even when automatic lane-centering is engaged.

The IIHS recommended that driver-monitoring systems should trigger a series of escalating attention reminders when it detects that a driver’s focus has wandered.

The first warning should be a brief visual reminder, the group said. "If the driver doesn’t quickly respond, the system should rapidly add an audible or physical alert, such as seat vibration, and a more urgent visual message." 

The recommendations follow a ruling by the National Transportation Safety Board that the driver of a Tesla Model X SUV involved in a fatal 2018 crash that occurred while the car was being operated in the automaker's Autopilot mode was playing a video game behind the wheel. 

The NTSB placed blame for the crash on the distracted driver, Tesla Inc. and Trump administration officials for not doing enough to prevent crashes involving cars that have semi-autonomous features that drivers easily mistake for being capable of full self-driving. 

IIHS President David Harkey said driver-assistance systems in partially automated cars often lure drivers into a false sense of complacency.

“Unfortunately, the more sophisticated and reliable automation becomes, the more difficult it is for drivers to stay focused on what the vehicle is doing,” Harkey said. “That’s why systems should be designed to keep drivers actively engaged.”

The IIHS singled out for praise Cadillac’s Super Cruise, which allows drivers to go hands-free once they are centered in highway lanes if their adaptive cruise-control is turned on. But it said even that system does not go far enough to ensure drivers pay attention. 

The Super Cruise system monitors facial cues; if it senses the driver is sleeping or not paying attention, it sends visual warnings, including a light bar on the steering wheel, and then audio warnings.

However, IIHS said, Super Cruise doesn’t require the driver’s hands to remain on the steering wheel. "Instead it monitors where the driver is looking and issues an alert when the driver’s gaze is diverted for too long," the group said.

They recommend that driver attention be monitored through multiple modes, so Super Cruise doesn’t meet all the group's guidelines.

IIHS Research Scientist Alexandra Mueller, lead author of the IIHS recommendations, said: “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.”

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Twitter: @Keith_Laing