Is it Possible for a Driver to Safely Take Back Control From a Self-Driving Car?

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Self-driving and semi-autonomous features are being worked into more and more automobiles with each passing year. At this point in development, it seems that it is the philosophy of the automaker moreso than the technology itself which is limiting the application of self-driving systems. Consider that Tesla recently unveiled and released its self-driving system. The October announcement heralded the dawn of a new era in automotive technology and driving culture. However, perhaps predictably, unanticipated concerns with the consumer interaction and behaviors with the system led the company to rollback its Autopilot feature due to “people doing crazy things” with the technology.

Furthermore, engineers from other automakers have sounded the alarm regarding Tesla’s actions pushing autonomous driving forward. Engineers from Jaguar have characterized Tesla’s decision to make autonomous technology available as “very irresponsible” and states that many automakers fear a catastrophic event that causes public support and trust in these technologies to crater setting back development for a generation or more. According to the Jaguar engineer, autonomous systems are still less than 100% reliable and can lead to a “false sense of security” for drivers.

Unfortunately, it appears that recent tests carried out by Stanford University researchers show that there is some credence to these warnings regarding the gradual implementation of improving autonomous and semi-autonomous cars and trucks.

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What are the Impacts of Autonomous Technology on Drivers and Vehicle Operators?

It appears that autonomous self-driving technology does indeed have a rather negative impact on a driver’s ability to maintain focus and concentration while the autonomous system is engaged. The study analyzed the behaviors of 48 drivers. The 48 drivers were first told to scan the road and maintain alertness while the automated driving system was engaged. 13 of the 48 began to nod off or otherwise lose focus on the roadway despite being told to maintain their attention. In contrast, other drivers were told to read or consumer other types of media while the autonomous system took care of driving. Only three of these individuals began to fall asleep.

However, these findings do not suggest that operators of vehicles should read or use electronic devices when driving. Rather, these findings merely show that drivers cannot be counted on to maintain their focus when automated systems take over. In light of today’s systems which cannot function independently constantly, this is a major problem. Further compounding this risk is the fact that there is no consensus regarding safe or effective control hand-off methods.

There is No Clear Consensus on Proper Methods for Autonomous System to Driver Hand-offs

Maintaining alertness even when the autonomous systems are engaged is important because an alert driver can avoid unexpected hazards in the roadway like pedestrians and other vehicles. Unfortunately, some automakers have decided to encourage other activities while driving to maintain alertness while others have implemented systems that detect if the driver’s eyes have left the roadway. If it detects a distracted driver, these systems will slow the vehicle.

Thus, automakers are faced with a fundamental problem. On one hand, they need to convince the public to trust automated systems and self-driving cars and trucks. On the other hand, the technology is still developing and imperfect. Thus, automakers must simultaneously warn against a false sense of security and complacency created by the autonomous systems. It is unclear if a proper balance can be struck between these competing goals.
However, striking a balance between these two viewpoints is complicated by the fact that research has shown that a driver needs 5 full seconds, when not distracted, to take over from a computer. If the driver is distracted or dozing, he or she will need even more time to take control of the car or truck. In the world of highway safety where fractions of a second can make the difference between life and death, such an extended hand-off.

Other questions regarding the hand-off process still remain and no clear consensus regarding a safe and effective e hand-off method has been reached. However, initial research seems to suggest that any method should combine alerts to multiple senses. For instance, spoken instructions should be combined with a vibrating seat and other visible indications. Furthermore, steps must be taken to protect against driver mode confusion. The failure to address these risks may increase the likelihood of car accidents due to improper use of the self-driving system.

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Injured by Misuse or Malfunction of a Self-Driving Car?

If you or a loved one have suffered severe, life-altering injury due to a self-driving car accident or malfunction, the personal injury lawyers of The Reiff Law Firm can fight to obtain compensation on your behalf. To schedule a free and confidential initial consultation, call our firm at (215) 246-9000 or contact us online today.

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