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Is partial driving automation more dangerous than none at all?

We have all been promised a future in which cars drive themselves and each of us will be free to sit back and enjoy the ride. This is a tempting proposition, considering how much time we spend in the car and how that time could be put to better use. The fully autonomous (self-driving) car is not yet a reality, but automakers are beginning to include partial automation systems that assist drivers and correct for human error.

It would be reasonable to assume that partial automation improves safety, but that isn’t always the case. A recent study from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) reveals that as drivers become more used to relying on partial automation features, they are more likely to disengage from the task of driving and to start giving in to distraction.

The IIHS study involved two groups of Massachusetts-based volunteers. Each volunteer was given a vehicle to use for a month. Drivers in the first group were given vehicles equipped with adaptive cruise control (ACC), which maintains a preset vehicle speed and a predetermined following distance from the car ahead. Drivers in the second group were given cars with ACC and an additional feature that keeps the vehicle centered in a lane and prevents drifting.

When the study began, drivers were not very familiar or comfortable with the new tech. Therefore, they stayed focused on the task of driving. However, as they grew accustomed to the technology over time, they became significantly more likely to “show signs of disengagement.” This included taking both hands off the wheel, losing focus or engaging distractions in the vehicle. Because group two had an additional automation feature, the results were stronger in this group than in group one.

If we assume that this type of behavior would eventually lead to a car accident (as it usually does), who would be to blame? Certainly, drivers bear responsibility for staying focused behind the wheel and understanding the limitations of the technology in their vehicles. But auto manufacturers may also share some blame for overstating the benefits of these features and/or not explicitly educating car owners about what they can and cannot do.

Until or unless cars reach full automation, automakers and car owners alike need to be perfectly clear on how partial automation works, how it is perceived and what its limits are.

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