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AAA tests vehicle technology designed to keep drivers engaged

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As vehicles become increasingly automated, drivers may be tempted to become less engaged on the road. Automakers have designed two types of systems to keep drivers engaged, but how effective are they? AAA conducted new real world testing of these systems and determined which one is the best and why the technology still needs to be refined.
Advancement of Vehicle Technology
Active driving assistance systems are widely available and often called semi-autonomous because they combine vehicle acceleration with braking and steering. Since its introduction, there have been numerous newsworthy instances of drivers misusing the systems by watching videos, working, sleeping, or even climbing into the backseat. When this behavior goes undetected by the vehicle it can result in deadly crashes.
To counter this, vehicles are equipped with driver monitoring systems – which use either a camera-based system that watches the driver’s face, or one that tracks steering wheel movement. Both systems are designed to alert the driver when they become disengaged.
“Driver monitoring systems are a good first step to preventing deadly crashes, however they are not foolproof” said Stephanie Milani, Tennessee Public Affairs Director, AAA – The Auto Club Group. “However, AAA hopes this study will get the attention of automakers and consumers, to remind them that driving assistance technology has limitations, needs to be refined, and should not replace an engaged driver.”
Testing the Technology
AAA test drove four popular makes and models in real-world conditions on a California highway to evaluate these systems’ effectiveness. During this time, drivers conducted a series of simulated distractions.
Findings
AAA determined that systems using a driver-facing camera are best at keeping motorists focused on the road.
On average, the percent of time test drivers were forced to focus on driving was five times greater when facing a camera than with steering wheel input.
Camera-based systems issued alerts faster and more persistently than a steering wheel system, no matter the external lighting conditions.
Even after issuing multiple warnings of inattentive driving, both systems failed to disable the semi-autonomous features and force the driver to take the wheel and pay attention.
Both driver monitoring types were prone to being intentionally fooled, although, those using a camera were harder to trick.
AAA Recommendations
Automakers should opt for camera-based driver monitoring systems over steering wheel monitoring.
The Advanced Driver Assistance system should disable after a defined period of driver monitoring alerts are issued.
Automakers should continually refine the monitoring system to prevent driver distraction and misuse.
Before releasing this report, AAA met with automakers to provide insight from the testing experience and specific recommendations for improvement.
AAA continues to urge automakers to adopt an industry standard naming convention, for vehicle technology to prevent drivers from misunderstanding the capabilities of catchy, marketing-driven branded names for popular systems.
Methodology
AAA conducted naturalistic driving evaluations on a 24-mile loop on a limited-access toll road in Southern California. The testing used four popular makes and models paired with a leading safety spotter vehicle. All test drivers and spotters were AAA researchers.
Each simulated driver distraction test ran ten minutes and used three methods:
Hands off the steering wheel, head up facing the road but gazing down.
Hands off the wheel, head and gaze aimed down to the right toward the center console.
Active circumvention or attempting to “beat the system” through a variation of gaze/head placement and periodic steering wheel input.
AAA selected four vehicles for testing, choosing two of each driver monitoring design type, camera-equipped and input from the steering wheel. The vehicles were as follows:
2021 Cadillac Escalade with “Super Cruise” using a driver-facing infrared camera
2021 Subaru Forester with “EyeSight” and Driver Focus using a driver-facing infrared camera
2021 Hyundai Santa Fe with “Highway Driving Assist” (steering wheel)
2020 Tesla Model 3 with “Autopilot” (steering wheel)
The vehicles were procured directly from the manufacturer or specialty rental fleets. AAA chose the test route due to its consistent traffic volume moving at or near the posted speed limit of 65mph to make the testing as safe as possible. Please refer to the full report for methodology details, including specific testing equipment and the driving route.
Active driving assistance, which is classified as Level 2 driving automation on SAE International’s scale of Level 0 to Level 5 and includes lane-keeping assistance and adaptive cruise control, provides the highest level of automated vehicle technology available to the public today. It also means that constant driver supervision is required. Most drivers will only interact with vehicle automation through these systems, which according to previous AAA research, are far from 100% reliable.

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