Autonomous cars are making drivers far from perfect

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Houston, we have a problem. Well, actually not just Houston. But newly released figures from the National Safety Council in the U.S. are startling.

Road fatalities have increased 14 per cent since 2014. After decades of plummeting rates, the recent, hard uptick is concerning for everyone. While the latest figures available from the government of Canada show our 2015 still on a slight downward trend (1669 deaths over 1709 in 2014) law makers and car manufacturers always keep their ears up for signs of troubling trends to the south of us that often make their way north. We drive the same cars and we play with the same toys.

You probably saw the recent article, and others, that say automated features in modern cars are making drivers lazy and dangerous. You shouldn’t be surprised; every time a new safety feature is unveiled by one manufacturer, and the others rush to copy it, all I can see is driver skill getting just a little farther away in my rearview mirror. Getting a true handle on why the increased fatality rates are occurring is intricate: higher employment and cheaper gas more people are driving more miles; in some areas, high housing costs means more of those people are extending their commutes. 

The safety features in modern cars are breathtaking in scope and complexity but the over-reliance and complacency of drivers threatens to take back with one hand what those safety breakthroughs are giving us with the other.

I’ve been yipping about the downside to the upside for years; new vehicles are capable of performing pretty amazing feats of technology, but too many people are handing over the operation and decision making to the car. It’s where the road to autonomous driving is leading us, but we’re not there yet. Carmakers are eager to strut their latest stuff, but their eye is on a far bigger prize: full autonomy. Their holy grail is the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Level 5 autonomous driving designation: “fully-autonomous system that expects the vehicle’s performance to equal that of a human driver, in every driving scenario – including extreme environments like dirt roads that are unlikely to be navigated by driverless vehicles in the near future.” 

That’s not really what is causing the most concern, however. It’s the Level 3 designation. “Drivers are still necessary in Level 3 cars, but are able to completely shift “safety-critical functions” to the vehicle, under certain traffic or environmental conditions.” The vehicle is mostly super great. Until it’s not and the driver has to surface from their reverie and take over. Level 4 is fully autonomous and “designed to perform all safety-critical driving functions and monitor roadway conditions for an entire trip.” Level 4 does not cover every driving scenario, hence it’s not Level 5.

We are currently in a terribly dangerous phase of our driving culture despite the explosion of technological advancement. We are neither here nor there; we are in the middle of a transition that can have no totally safe mode. We have exciting, ever-changing automatic features on our cars but many drivers who either don’t know how to use them or trust them too much, endangering themselves and those around them. If fatality rates continue to spike in the U.S. in the alarming double digits served up the last two years, manufacturers as well as law-makers are going to have to reassess their dash to the finish line. Too many bodies piled up on the way to a promised utopia of far fewer casualties makes for lousy optics.

Everyone from the Center for Disease Control to Mythbusters has proven that handsfree use of a device is just as dangerous as a handheld; it’s your cognitive ability that is compromised, and your mind is sunk deep into a conversation rather than the road whether you’re holding the phone or not. Increased fines and punishments are being implemented in most jurisdictions, but too many users are mirroring the bluster of that other ornery group who have declared you will have to take it from their cold, dead hands. And increasingly, that is what’s happening. 

Why shoulder check if you have a chime that will let you know what’s up? Why look outside your car windows before you back up if you camera is showing you what’s back there? Why not stab through layers of on-screen directions to find that playlist even if your eyes are off the road? Why worry about tailgating when your car will brake itself for you? Who cares if you’re texting when your lane departure warning will let you know you’ve LOL’d once too often? Too many people drive like they’re bowling in an alley with the bumper guards up. What can go wrong?

A system can fail; a driver can get in a car without those bumper guards. The same way traction control has a generation not even knowing their car has just saved them from spinning out of control, we will have drivers forgetting they are making multiple errors, some of which could be tragic without that car-as-lifeguard. I don’t care if every car has parking assist. Nobody ever has to learn to parallel park again. Parallel parking is useful but not vital to staying alive. It’s an assist, not a safety feature. Not knowing you’re drifting all over the road or about to smash the car ahead of you is dangerous, and until the car can make the entire chain of decisions, a driver is required to know what to do. Too many are forfeiting.

If you read this space with any regularity, you know I detest the word “infotainment”. Information is information; entertainment is entertainment.  Manufacturers who collide these together do a disservice to the very consumers they’ve pledged to protect. Learn how to work your onboard navigation system (including traffic settings and things like toll roads) when you’re in dry dock, program it and leave it the hell alone. 

 Manufacturers, don’t make me rabbit-hole down three levels of screens to adjust the temperature or cancel the nav lady’s voice. Drivers, start using your mirrors and stop relying on a flash from your side mirror to let you know what’s going on around you. 

I don’t want Canadian statistics to start to trend the way American ones are. Our stricter laws are a help; only 29 U.S. states and D.C. have laws requiring all occupants to wear a seatbelt. We die on our roads because we drive too fast, we drive impaired, we drive distracted and we don’t buckle up.

How do you save someone from themselves? We’re not there yet.

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