The auto driver will have to wait

The dark sides of autonomous driving systems

One of the hottest trends in the automotive world is autonomous driving. Leading manufacturers like Tesla and Audi were quick to introduce fully autonomous vehicles (alongside hybrid cars). Still, most automakers have adopted an intermediate approach that allows the integration of autonomous driving features, designed to make driving safer and more comfortable, without removing the overall responsibility from the driver. The problem is that drivers get used to the system guarding them and allow themselves to get their hands off the wheel and focus on the cell phone.

On May 5, 2021, 35-year-old Steven Hendrickson’s Tesla 3 collided head-on with a truck in the middle of the Fontana Interchange in California. Hendrickson was killed on the spot. There seems to be nothing unique or different in this tragic case, from millions of road accidents that ended similarly. Anyone who wants to understand what is unusual in Hendrickson’s story is invited to look at videos in his Tik-Tok account. He is seen sitting behind the wheel without holding the steering wheel or looking at the road while the car travels very fast. Most of the videos were accompanied by a headline like: “What would I do after a long day of work without my Tesla driving herself.”

The technology is not designed to replace the driver

If you were wondering, then the answer is yes – even in the accident that claimed the life of Stephen Hendrickson, the “driver” was Tesla’s autonomous system. The same system whose leading cause for development is “safety” and “preservation of the life of the driver and passengers.” Hendrickson’s case is not an isolated case, and the first Tesla autonomous accident has already been recorded in Israel. We should point out that there is nothing wrong with autonomous driving at the level of principle. Unlike the human mind and consciousness, the idea that software can be error-free and therefore provide a protective shell while driving is a decent idea. But it is essential to understand that this technology has limitations, at least at present, so it is not meant to replace the driver but only to support and assist him. Other car manufacturers are taking a more conservative approach and stressing that technological means do not intend to replace the driver’s attention. Unfortunately, a new study reveals that not everything is rosy there either.

Adaptive cruise control and lane-keeping

The most common and prominent is “adaptive cruise control” (ACC) when talking about autonomous driving features. Cruise control per se, or “cruise control”, is an old and simple feature that was very popular in American vehicles back in the 1970s and was intended for long coast-to-coast trips on the United States’ interstate highway network. There was nothing sophisticated in cruise control other than fixing the accelerator pedal to a constant speed that allowed the pilgrim to rest. “Adaptive cruise control” is something completely different. This is a complex technological system that includes sensors and a control system that controls the speed of travel and maintains an optimal distance from the vehicles in front of it and, if necessary, knows how to reach a complete stop on its own. Thus, it allows a comfortable ride that frees the driver from depressing the pedals on an open road and in a traffic jam. Models such as the Volvo S90, besides adaptive cruise control, also contain a system that maintains the vehicle’s steering within the lane. In many respects driving a car like this can give a feeling of fully autonomous driving, which is deceptive. It can mislead a false security driver who could endanger his safety, as happened to the unfortunate Stephen Hendrickson.

Get used to getting your hands off the wheel

A study commissioned by the United States Insurance Company’s Intercity Road Safety Authority examined the effect of autonomous driving features on drivers’ behavior. During the study, the researchers followed (using cameras and other monitoring devices) 20 volunteer drivers, from the moment they started driving the vehicle with the autonomous features, and over several weeks. There was no change in how they operated in the early days, and each driver kept their previous patterns. But after a while, there was a significant change in the behavior of the drivers. They began to give more and more confidence in the autonomous features, gained confidence, and began to afford to get their hands off the wheel, tinker with the mobile phone and generally lower the level of focus while driving. So what’s the problem? Autonomous systems certainly add a safety component that can prevent the driver from making a mistake, but they should not replace it, and it must always be present and in control. Of course, there are scenarios where the automated system may not always respond, and technology may not make a human error. Still, it can undoubtedly crash or break down at the least appropriate moment, and then false security can become a death trap. But, before we jump to the conclusion that the aspiration for an autonomous vehicle is dangerous and therefore unnecessary, let us remember that still, the value of switching to such vehicles outweighs the disadvantages, but be aware of the risks involved and make them safer. The solution is already available and within reach.

Complete the puzzle with SaverOne

The Israeli technology company SaverOne has a perfect solution to the autonomous paradox. Currently, in most cases where drivers take their hand off the steering wheel or divert attention, the blame is on the mobile phone. It’s hard to resist the temptation to be available, and after all, if the vehicle now keeps a distance in our place and keeps us in the lane, why not just pick at Twitter or respond to WhatsApp? But what happens if while driving WhatsApp is disabled (do not worry. If someone searches for you, they will get an instant message that notifies them that you are driving) and you have no way to connect to Twitter while driving? Common sense says that despite possible pain, still keeping the focus on the road is more important, even if you have an “adaptive cruise system” in the vehicle.

Skip to content