BOISE – Active driving assistance technology combines adaptive cruise control and lane keeping assistance to help drivers maintain their lane position and a safe following distance, but AAA’s new research shows that vehicles with these systems need considerable improvement before they can take the place of an engaged human driver.

During 4,000 miles of testing on closed courses and public roadways, AAA researchers observed 521 “events,” where the vehicle departed from its lane or displayed other erratic behavior.  That’s one event every eight miles.

“When the test vehicles were on a closed course with smooth pavement and fresh lane markings, they did a much better job of holding their lane position.  But road surfaces in the real world, including here in Idaho, are far from perfect, and lane markings may even be non-existent at times,” says AAA Idaho spokesman Matthew Conde.  “Our latest research suggests that drivers should treat active driving assistance with a healthy dose of skepticism.”

The test vehicles also struggled to avoid a disabled vehicle on the side of the road.  In the course of AAA’s research, the test vehicles hit the disabled car 66 percent of the time, even though they were traveling at just 30 mph.  On average, the test vehicles only reduced speed by 5 mph before impact.

“If these vehicles have trouble detecting and avoiding a disabled car, we can only imagine how they will react to a pedestrian or bicyclist, especially at higher speeds,” Conde said.

But there is some good news – at 30 mph, all of the vehicles in the study were able to avoid contact with a lead car in stop and go traffic.  Auto manufacturers can continue to build on that foundation.

B-roll of AAA’s testing process can be found here:

“AAA made another interesting discovery – each vehicle has a slight positional bias to the right or left side of the lane, depending on the brand,” Conde said.  “But the major takeaway is that drivers need to be fully educated on how these systems will perform in a variety of scenarios, or it could end up being a very disconcerting or even dangerous experience.”

Active driving assistance is classified as Level 2 automation by the SAE International, the highest level commonly available in today’s market.  AAA believes that manufacturers should complete more simulations on closed courses and actual on-road evaluations before making active driver assistance widely available to the public.  Drivers should look for vehicles with adaptive cruise control and pass on active driver assistance until the technology is more road ready.

“Like the human eye, the cameras and sensors that are used in active driver assistance may struggle to ‘see’ when there is too much glare, or not enough road markings,” Conde said.  “Also, travel lanes can narrow, widen, or end altogether, which makes the driving environment even more complex.”

AAA suggests that drivers take a test drive and request a complete demonstration of all safety equipment before making a purchase decision.  Vehicle owners with advanced systems should also maintain situational awareness at all times, because they may need to intervene at a moment’s notice if the automated system fails to respond appropriately.

Automobile manufacturers are encouraged to keep testing and fine-tuning active driving assistance and improve the human/machine interface to increase drivers’ ability to trust the technology.

“Somewhere way down the road, autonomous vehicles will be capable of preventing most of the nearly 35,000 deaths that occur on U.S. roads each year,” Conde said.  “But for now, there is no substitute for an alert and attentive driver.”