Human motorists can be lulled into a false sense of security by new technology that's meant to assist—but never replace—them behind the wheel.
This "automation complacency" has been cited as a contributing factor to several fatal crashes involving advanced driver-assist systems, and now the findings from a study conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety further spotlight the pitfalls associated with the influx of these new technologies.
Researchers with IIHS and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's AgeLab found that as drivers grew more comfortable with adaptive cruise control and lane-keeping features, they were more likely to show signs of inattention to the driving task. Sometimes significantly so.
After a month of driving a Volvo S90 sedan equipped with both adaptive cruise control and lane-keeping, part of the automaker's Pilot Assist package, motorists were 12 times more likely to remove both hands from the wheel at the end of the month than they were at the beginning, the researchers found.
Another group of drivers drove Land Rover Range Rover Evoques equipped only with adaptive cruise control.
They grew more likely to pick up their cellphones as they became more comfortable throughout the month, but notably they did not increase the frequency of texting or other phone-related distractions.
The subtle differences in results are a reminder that not all driver-assist features are the same, and more so, underscore the role driver-monitoring systems can play in ensuring motorists don't let their attention wander from the road.
"This supports our call for more robust ways of ensuring the driver is looking at the road and ready to take the wheel when using Level 2 systems," said IIHS senior research scientist Ian Reagan, lead author of the study.
IIHS is not the only organization calling for such oversight. The National Transportation Safety Board has spotlighted the role automation complacency has played in multiple deadly crashes involving Tesla's Autopilot driver-assist system and recommended automakers develop safeguards that ensure motorists keep their eyes on the road.
Last month, the European New Car Assessment Program began to incorporate driver-monitoring effectiveness into its overall vehicle ratings program. But U.S. regulators and vehicle-testing organizations have not yet followed suit.
Findings from the IIHS study could strengthen the case for doing so. Further, they should remind motorists that driver-assist systems do not equal autonomous ones. At least for now, human drivers are squarely responsible for driving.