Hidden danger of modern cars
A STUDY released in the United States raises fresh concerns about semi-autonomous cars and driver assistance systems that are increasingly common in new cars.
Comparing the automation of the airline industry with the increased automation of driving, the study - by NASA research psychologist Stephen Casner and professor of cognitive sciences from the University of San Diego Edwin Hutchins - says semi-autonomous systems can be confusing, unpredictable and incapable of dealing with some critical situations.
Titled What Do We Tell the Drivers? Toward Minimum Driver Training Standards for Partially Automated Cars, the report recommends adopting learnings from how pilots are trained and applying them to modern cars.
The study is particularly relevant following the high profile crashes of two highly automated Boeing 737 Max 8 planes, with early speculation centring on how the planes interact with the pilots in critical situations.
Published by New York-based Sage Journals, the study recommends educating drivers about the systems in modern cars and learning more about driver reactions to autonomous systems.
"It was only following a concerted effort to educate pilots about the automation, about themselves, and about the concept of a human-automation team that we reached the near-zero crash rate we enjoy today," the authors of the report say.
The report suggests drivers will continue to play a crucial role in the automation of vehicles but that they need to better understand the systems in modern cars.
"Today, airline crashes are at a historic low - following a concerted effort by human factors professionals to raise awareness of how humans and automation systems can and must work together as a team, with an understanding of the strengths and limitations of each reflected in the other. Can history repeat itself in semi-automated cars?"
The report says drivers do not understand how or when they should react to certain warnings or actions by semi-autonomous vehicles.
While pilots undergo rigorous training, the details of such systems are often buried in owner's manuals that never leave the glovebox of a car.
"Forty years the wiser, we have an opportunity to use what we have learned [from air travel] to help prepare drivers as they transition to the world of partially automated driving," the report says.
Casner and Hutchins say automation changed flying "in surprising and fundamental ways" leading to "new kinds of crashes", something the car industry should learn from.
"The automation … sometimes did things that pilots didn't expect and sometimes it neglected to do things that they did expect: what the aviation industry came to refer to as 'automation surprises'."
They say a key component of modern air travel was to "educate the pilots about the automation and the fundamental changes in the job of flying that it had introduced".
The authors say there are parallels with the car industry.
"As manufacturers race to get these systems installed in cars, studies are already documenting how drivers allow their attention to drift, over-rely on or ignore alerts, don't understand how the automation works, and often make dangerous assumptions about what the automation is capable of doing and about what the driver is now free to do once the automation is turned on.
"From the perspective of the aviation industry, it's the 1980s all over again."
The authors suggest the race to install assistance features in modern cars is confusing some drivers, especially as there are different approaches by different manufacturers.
"We believe that these systems have grown too complex to be safely used without a basic understanding of these logic concepts."