BOISE –  Under certain conditions, vehicles with Level 2 (or L2) automation, also known as active driver assistance, can help maintain lane position and distance from the car in front of you, but a human driver may need to take over at a moment’s notice.  According to new research from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, drivers who are somewhat skeptical about an unfamiliar technology tend to be more careful using it, while overconfidence in the system’s capabilities can lead to inattentive driving and other risky behavior.

In the first of AAA’s new studies, drivers who were introduced to L2 technology initially paid more attention to their surroundings than under normal driving conditions, possibly because they didn’t know what to expect.  But in a separate study, drivers who took part in presentations that touted the benefits of active driver assistance over its limitations tended to be overconfident in the technology, resulting in longer periods of distraction and slower reaction time behind the wheel.

“In the future, autonomous vehicle technology has the potential to reduce congestion and the number of crashes on our roads, but it will take time to get there,” says AAA Idaho spokesman Matthew Conde.  “What we have right now is a delicate partnership between humans and machines.  If drivers don’t have an accurate idea of what the technology can and cannot do, they’re going to end up in some very dangerous situations.”

Study results

To better understand the importance of how active driver assistance is presented to vehicle owners, AAA randomly assigned study participants to one of two groups.  Both groups were given completely accurate information about the same system, but while one group saw a presentation that underscored the features and convenience of a technology called “AutonoDrive,” the other group focused more on the system limitations of a technology called “DriveAssist.”  After the presentation, the two groups completed a post-training questionnaire, with surprising results.

In seven out of 18 scenarios, the “AutonoDrive” group reported much higher confidence than their “DriveAssist” counterparts that the vehicle could safely operate without help, including situations that they were specifically told that the system isn’t designed to handle:

  • The vehicle will slow down heading into a tight curve (56 percent vs. 27 percent)
  • The vehicle will reduce speed if the speed limit decreases (51 percent vs. 30 percent)
  • The vehicle will avoid hitting a construction worker (27 percent vs. 16 percent)
  • The vehicle will avoid a crash if a car alongside starts moving over (42 percent vs. 4 percent)

“According to AAA’s findings, 42 percent of people felt that ‘AutonoDrive’ made the technology sound more capable than it is, compared to just 11 percent who felt that way about ‘DriveAssist’”, Conde said.  “So what’s in a name?  Everything.”

Overconfidence also led to a greater willingness to take risks behind the wheel.  A whopping 65 percent of “AutonoDrive” people said they would be comfortable eating and drinking while the vehicle was in control, compared to just 27 of people in the “DriveAssist” group.  “AutonoDrive” group members were also more willing to use a cell phone or mobile device (45 percent vs. 13 percent).  Distracted driving is one of the leading causes of fatal and injury crashes in the U.S.

“Keep in mind that if the system becomes confused at any point in time, it will hand control back to the human driver with little or no warning,” Conde explained.  “During the test drive, the ‘DriveAssist’ people were much more cautious and ready to react, spending less time with their hands far away from the steering wheel and their feet far away from the pedals.”

Implications for manufacturers and new vehicle owners

While both groups became more comfortable with the technology after learning about it and experiencing it for themselves, AAA’s research is a reminder to auto manufacturers to ensure that advanced driver assistance systems are clearly explained to a potential car buyer.

In separate research completed in partnership with the University of Utah, AAA evaluated groups of drivers ages 21 to 42 and ages 43 to 63 as they drove vehicles with and without the aid of L2 technology on both straight and curvy roads.  Four vehicles from different manufacturers were used in the study.  Overall, drivers were more attentive when L2 systems were in use.

After experiencing the technology for themselves, 68 percent of that study’s participants said that they would use it as much as possible while driving, but nearly 80 percent said they wouldn’t feel comfortable using it without closely monitoring the vehicle.

AAA encourages dealer representatives to accurately portray the features, benefits, and limitations of active driving assistance, and educate buyers during a rigorous test drive.  The acronym PLAN can help consumers with the learning process:

  • Purpose – Learn the purpose of the technology by reading the vehicle owner’s manual and visiting the manufacturer’s website.
  • Limitations – Don’t make any assumptions about what the technology can or cannot do.
  • Allow time for testing – take some on-road tests so that you can see exactly how the systems perform in real-world situations.
  • Never rely completely on it – Treat the technology as a nice bonus, but plan to do most of the driving – you’re still in charge.