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Automated vehicle drivers fail to keep their eyes on the road, study finds

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Drivers can become overly reliant on the technology powering automated vehicles (AV) and will stop looking at the road against guidelines, a University of Toronto Engineering study has found.

Using an AV driving simulator and eye-tracking equipment, researchers studied two types of in-vehicle displays and their effects on the driving behaviours of 48 participants.

They found that drivers' sight often drifted from looking ahead, which was especially true with a type of in-vehicle display coined as takeover request and automation capability (TORAC).

A “takeover request” asks the driver to take vehicle control when automation is not able to handle a situation; “automation capability” indicates how close to that limit the automation is.

“Drivers find themselves in situations where, although they are not actively driving, they are still part of the driving task - they must be monitoring the vehicle and step in if the vehicle fails,” said Professor Birsen Donmez.

“And these vehicles fail, it’s just guaranteed. The technology on the market right now is not mature enough to the point where we can just let the car drive and we go to sleep. We are not at that stage yet.”

Tesla’s AV system, for example, warns drivers every 30 seconds or so when their hands aren’t detected on the wheel. This prompt can support driver engagement to some extent, but when the automation fails, driver attention and anticipation are the key factors that determine whether or not you get into a traffic accident.

“Even though cars are advertised right now as self-driving, they are still just Level 2 or partially automated,” said lead author Dengbo He. “The driver should not rely on these types of vehicle automation.”

In one of the team’s driving scenarios, the participants were given a non-driving, self-paced task meant to mimic common distractions such as reading text messages, while takeover prompts and automation capability information were turned on.

“Their monitoring of the road went way down compared to the condition where these features were turned off,” said Donmez. “Automated vehicles and takeover requests can give people a false sense of security, especially if they work most of the time. People are going to end up looking away and doing something non-driving related.”

The researchers also tested a second in-vehicle display system that added information on surrounding traffic to the data provided by the TORAC system, called STTORAC. These displays showed more promise in ensuring driving safety.

STTORAC provides drivers with ongoing information about their surrounding driving environment, including highlighting potential traffic conflicts on the road. This type of display led to the shortest reaction time in scenarios where drivers had to take over control of the vehicle, showing a significant improvement from both the TORAC and the no-display conditions.

“When you’re not driving and aren’t engaged, it’s easy to lose focus. Adding information on surrounding traffic kept drivers better engaged in monitoring and anticipating traffic conflicts,” said He.

In August this year, the government launched a consultation that could pave the way to driverless cars being introduced on British roads as early as 2021.

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