Is All This New Automotive Safety Tech Working? Not If Drivers Don’t Understand It

Owners who don't get how advanced systems work could compromise safety—and slow the arrival of self-driving cars.

YouTube / Mercedes-Benz

January always arrives with an avalanche of new automotive technology, courtesy of both CES in Las Vegas and the North American International Auto Show, underway right now in Detroit. Much of the chatter in CES focuses on the arrival (sooner, later, or waaaay later) of autonomous vehicles, while Detroit tends to play up the sheet metal and the performance of new cars and trucks. Both, however, are also reliable showcases of all the not-quite-autonomous safety and convenience tech that’s creeping into our cars and is meant not only to take the stress out of driving, but make us better at it.

But here’s a thought: Is all this stuff doing what it’s really intended to?

Note that we're not asking does it work, of course, because the innovations do indeed function as advertised. Known collectively as advanced driver assistance technologies (ADAS), the features include everything from adaptive cruise control to brake assist and other collision-avoidance tech to blind-spot monitoring and pedestrian detection. Most of this tech is showing up in top-end luxury cars and trickling down to cars for the normals. (See the dizzying full range of possibilities here.) It can be entirely infused into the car’s operation and barely noticeable—think anti-lock brakes and tire-pressure monitors—or it can be pronounced, often jarring interventions that can be disabled at the driver’s discretion. Things like the sudden panic-braking in rear cross-traffic detection systems, which can scare the bejeezus out of a driver the first time it happens. (And the second, and the third…) They can also be confusing and disorienting if the driver isn’t fully aware about how they work, or that they’re even present in the car.

Which brings us to the concerning question about the newest, most sophisticated, and priciest new ADAS systems: Are they truly being embraced by drivers, thus moving the safety ball farther down the field? Or are they baffling nuisances that are eventually shut down, unused, or avoided out of frustration, annoyance, or uncertainty? Even more interestingly, are they truly paving the way for the semi-autonomous and autonomous cars now in the pipeline, as manufacturers seem to be counting on?

 For the most part, the systems are indeed improving safety and boosting convenience even among those who aren’t particularly dialed into what their cars are up to—often for no other reason than the systems are persistently active and step in to save your bacon when necessary. But the issue of consumer awareness and confusion is very real. 

“There is always a group of early adopters who are enthusiastic about the technology and readily embrace it and seek it out, such as Tesla owners,” says Brandon Schoettle, a researcher at the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute. “But others remain skeptical, mainly from a fear of the unknown—which makes sense because this ‘unknown’ has major safety implications. Then there is the somewhat ambivalent group who will get and have this technology not so much because they sought it out, but it is just a natural consequence of owning the types of vehicles this technology is introduced with.”

 That middle category—those experiencing degrees of trepidation—is the greatest concern, and perhaps the greatest impedance to consumer adoption of ADAS tech. 

“At this point, only 2 percent of vehicles on the roads today have these features,” says Deborah Hersman, president and CEO of the National Safety Council. “They are largely still ‘add-ons’ with an additional cost, and if buyers—and dealers—don’t understand them, they may not opt for them.”

What fuels the lack of understanding? Partially it’s confusion about the branding of the systems—the alphabet soup that changes from manufacturer to manufacturer. One company brands their lane-keeping assist technology as “Lane Center Pro Plus”—or whatever—while another calls it “Advanced Lane Hold Assist System II.” After all, today people just call airbags airbags, not Air Cushion Restraint Systems or even the more common (but at least standardized) Supplemental Restraint System. It’s an airbag. Consumers should be able to ask for “lane centering” and have that be the end of the conversation.

Then there are all the subtle variations in the way the ADAS systems work. A beep in one car may be a vibration in another; one vehicle’s threshold for emergency braking might differ wildly from another’s. Given the frequency of vehicle-sharing already going on among friends and family—let alone the services that purport to be the future of mobility—those differences can have huge impacts on driver safety. Unfortunately, the problem extends, as well, to the fact that drivers aren’t always fully briefed on how the systems work in the first place, Hersman says.

The risks of such misunderstandings goes far deeper than merely whether or not the new systems are used, or even valued. Drivers may not be aware of when the systems are inoperable or failing for whatever reason, for instance; or, on the other hand, they might put too much faith in them. 

We know from aviation that increasing automation can lead to deterioration of manual skills, mode confusion, and other risks, therefore we need to watch for over-reliance on automation at all levels,” says Hersman, who’s also a former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board.

It should be noted in all this carping that the growing awareness of the challenges facing the coming generations of assisted or automated driving is a direct—and largely intended—result of this relatively slow pacing. 

“Many automakers are approaching the introduction of autonomous vehicles slowly, one step at a time,” Schoettle says. “This serves two purposes—the risk associated with these new technologies is slowly rolled out rather than all at once, which allows for better real-world testing of each incremental step. Also, this slow roll out also allows the public to ease into the technology rather than one big jump into the unknown.”

But that slow rollout of semi-autonomous tech can, conversely, stifle the very progress it's intended to achieve if drivers themselves aren’t 100 percent up to speed. After all, a McKinsey & Company study in 2016 found that only 63 percent of car buyers were even aware of the ADAS systems available to them and only 8 percent intended to purchase them. The upside is that 89 percent of those who did purchase such systems would do so again—evidence that familiarity can indeed breed commitment.

As a result of the wide-ranging concerns about the fact that there are still humans at the controls, the National Safety Council suggests a variety of measures relative to the adoption of new ADAS systems. First: Simple demonstrations. Hersman cites a new study from the University of Iowa’s National Advanced Driving Simulator that shows drivers like to be personally introduced to the new technologies in a ride-along. Owner’s manuals help, but drivers vastly preferred demonstrations of the technologies. “It increases both understanding and trust,” she says. “Study participants said after the demonstrations they were more likely to want to purchase some of these technologies in their next cars.”

In addition, there needs to be standardization relative to how automated technology is discussed and presented to consumers, particularly given the fact that imprecise wording may lead consumers to believe they are fully automated when they’re actually not. Which of course leads to another point: The need for consistent naming schemes and operating standards—that is, even if there are new features and innovations, similar features should work similarly. Finally, such systems need to be integrated into driver training programs, the NSC argues, because current curricula overlooks them entirely.

Demonstrations, standardization, integration—the cornerstones of helping the public (and automakers) make the most out of this technology that makes up the building blocks of any self-driving future. So in the end, the auto industry will need to get its act together—stop being slaves to brand distinction, educate the consumer, and get the tech out into the streets—if that future ever has a hope of coming to be.