Insights from recent research spearheaded by the University of Windsor’s Faculty of Human Kinetics suggest that drivers at the helm of semi-autonomous vehicles could be descending into dangerous levels of distraction, instead of maintaining their focus on the road.
Much akin to airplane pilots employing autopilot, the drivers transition from being hands-on operators to mere supervisors. This emergent behavior has led to a call to action for regulators to amp up driver education and for automobile manufacturers to be more thorough in recording crashes involving semi-autonomous vehicles.
Francesco Biondi, a professor of Kinesiology, noted, “This did not catch us off guard. When individuals are in the driving seat with these systems at work, they tend to feel a false sense of security.”
To gain empirical evidence, Biondi constructed a study incorporating 30 subjects. Over the course of several months, they navigated the expanse of Highway 401, traveling between Windsor and Chatham in a 2022 Tesla Model 3. The research subjects established control both manually and in L2 semi-autonomous modes, to compare responses and concentration levels.
Biondi observed that more often than not, inexperienced Tesla drivers were unwittingly becoming less vigilant in semi-autonomous mode, exposing themselves and others to potential hazards. Many of them rapidly digressed to idly browsing the vehicle’s touchscreen, while some even found themselves inching towards sleep.
Contrary to these trends, drivers remained keenly alert while in full manual mode. “Generally speaking, they were more inclined to examine their surroundings and pay attention to the road ahead than when in autonomous mode,” stated Biondi.
This groundbreaking study, funded by the Ontario Ministry of Transportation, is the first of its kind in Canada. Unlike previous research conducted on driving simulators, this study involved observing real-time interactions between drivers and semi-autonomous vehicles in regular road conditions.
Each driver was equipped with detailed monitoring equipment, tracking their eye movements, heart rate, and hand-eye response times. They were further observed by three different cameras that recorded their head movements and ongoing events within and around the vehicle.
Biondi expressed hopes that the accumulated data will validate the need for revamped driver training for regulators in Canada and across the world. He noted a particular susceptibility to errors in construction zones, where lane identification can be challenging, and stressed the need for greater vigilance.
Biondi expressed, “I received my driver’s license two decades ago, and, oddly enough, despite the monumental advances in vehicle technology, the process of driver training hasn’t significantly evolved.”
He advocates for additional research involving drivers embarked on long journeys and facing challenging weather conditions, particularly with the increasing adoption of semi-autonomous technology among motorists and car manufacturers. “It’s undeniable that a better trained driver using these systems more effectively would equate to safer roads,” he concluded.