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Cruising for a Bruising: Research finds Automatic Systems in Cars Can Increase Risk of Crashing

Recent laboratory research carried out by Dr. Mark Young at Brunel University has found that automation in cars is increasing the likelihood of road accidents. Looking at the effects of Adaptive Cruise Control (ACC) and Active Steering (AS) on driving skills, researchers found that when used together, drivers of varying standards could not avoid crashing. In fact, half of all learner drivers in fully automated vehicles did not react at all to an emergency situation.

Researchers tested two driving groups of 24 expert drivers and 20 learner drivers alongside each other in a simulated automation failure, and looked at the impact of underload (giving drivers no real psychological role to play) and high workload on drivers' responses. Towards the end of the drive, the ACC was made to fail, so that it didn't detect a brake application by the vehicle ahead, and drivers had to intervene in order to avoid crashing. When using ACC on its own, with workload still relatively high, both groups managed to cope with the emergency. However, when combined with AS, giving rise to a severe underload condition, many of the learner drivers couldn't avoid the crash.

Dr. Mark Young and his team found that drivers were much better at avoiding a crash if they had at least some level of manual control. Underloading was found to be just as dangerous as overloading, and is a similar condition to ‘highway hypnosis' – a state where the driver can't actually remember the last few miles of their journey. If a driver has too little to do, the capacity to respond to unexpected events is dramatically reduced.

Dr. Young argues: "It seems that today's drivers aren't designed to cope with new automotive technology. Many of the positive automotive technology developments of the last few years are outpacing our human abilities to control the car. It's essential that drivers are actively involved – advancements in technology need to support the driver, not take over from the driver.

"Car designers believe that giving drivers less to do improves comfort and convenience when driving. Our research has found that giving drivers too little to do is just, if not more, dangerous. Automation systems should still engage drivers in the business of driving rather then trying to make them redundant."

Peter Rodger, Chief Examiner at the IAM, says: "This research is a reminder that over the last 50 years car safety technology has improved vastly – but the driver at the wheel hasn't changed at all. The safest car available on the market today is only as good as the driver in it. That is why driver education and the increased hazard awareness that comes with advanced driving will always be the deciding factor in avoiding crashes.

"Over-reliance on the benefits of technology may lead us to being unable to cope when things go wrong, increasing the risk of major injury and death. The emphasis seems to be to remove the human element from driving and relying on the computer – but computers crash sometimes too. Over-reliance on the technology may lead to a mindset that, paradoxically, increases the risk of a crash."