Is Driving Now the Distraction?
Recent surges in car crashes and the reality that your phone is now the “remote control” for your life suggest that driving may rapidly become the secondary task in the vehicle.
Autonomy is poised to disrupt the automotive industry as we know it today. Large technology players, nuanced startups, automotive manufacturers and suppliers are developing automated driving features and driverless vehicles that have the potential to reshape how we live and move.
The technology brings with it the promise of fewer crashes and minimized harm once fully developed. In a fully automated future there is the potential for redistributing time towards activities that promote greater productivity and quality of life. However, that reality is not yet here, and the schedule for getting there is far from certain. In the meantime, autonomy-involved fatalities, lawsuits around automated vehicles, and legislative discussions at the state and federal level dominate the news.
While automation is a topic of explosive attention today, long before the hype, it had a role in automotive safety. Sensing and actuation, the key building blocks of automation, have long been deployed in systems such as automatic transmissions, antilock brakes, and electronic stability control. What has changed is the extent to which we are inviting the reduction of driver involvement in vehicle control.
There is mounting evidence from naturalistic studies that suggest today’s drivers are engaging in an increasing array of distracting secondary tasks. Casual observation of drivers on any given morning commute anecdotally confirms that these studies may in fact under-represent the scale of the current problem. Recent surges in auto crash frequencies and severity, dramatic gains in smartphone ownership among American adults, and a daily teen and adult reality in which the smartphone has become a “remote control” for one’s life suggest that driving may rapidly become the secondary task in the vehicle.
With such a reality staring us in the face, we may think that autonomy cannot come soon enough to save us from ourselves.Automatic Emergency Braking (AEB) may substantially reduce the severity and frequency of distracted drivers rear-ending others on the road—for now. But how this and other technologies impact risk where our attention is drawn more and more to our smartphones is unknown.
What is possible, is that with each new layer of protection, we are likely to take some or all of the added safety benefits and offset them by engaging in more and more non-driving activities. In essence, we threaten to make mobility about how many things other than driving we can cram into our lives on the road and forfeit the safety benefits.
As the industry continues to build out its autonomous technology for active safety and collaborative control, we are invited to join pilots, refinery operators, and others who have preceded us into an automated future in becoming collaborative partners with the machine. We are becoming system monitors who ‘pretend to drive’ or remain engaged nearly passively in the driving task. While it is plausible that innovative system designs can encourage a robot-human collaboration that improves safety, many efforts will likely fall short of meeting such expectations. There will be a, potentially painful, learning curve.
From what we know of neuroscience and the history of human-machine pioneers, our brains are not particularly well suited to monitoring complex systems, even with considerable procedural and training safeguards. They just prefer efficiency to the complete mastery of detail and perpetual attention that effective continuous monitoring requires.
Add to this the fact that automation initially takes on the least challenging conditions—bailing out to the driver when the going gets tough. The potential consequence of automation designed to catch our easy errors is that we create brittle systems—ones in which we are required to plunge, fully aware, into the most complicated of driving situations on seconds notice when errors or driving challenges become too complex for automation to handle. Again, history teaches us that this particular set of circumstances is not our brains’ strong suit. Add to this a mixed fleet reality where smart and not-so-smart vehicles intermingle, to a varied extent, capable (and not capable) of stopping on a dime.
Studies at MIT’s Advanced Vehicle Technology Consortium examine these sorts of dynamics in today’s off-the-dealer-floor vehicles with autonomous features. Here, we find our participants ever more drawn to the siren song of their life remotes, picking up smartphones more frequently with even the most basic of automated driving features. Quotes such as “I also found myself using the safety features to my advantage to be more distracted” tell quite a story. And that is with monitoring cameras and equipment providing investigators a view into the vehicle at the time!
The ultimate question may be: Are we successfully fighting distraction using techniques like “don’t text and drive” or do we need technological solutions in order to save ourselves from our multitasking-gone-haywire and social-brain prioritization tendencies? How else might we shift the paradigm? We have invested heavily in combating the rise of competitive secondary tasks. We ask (a bit tongue in cheek), is it time to admit that driving has now actually become the secondary task?
Fractured attention is part of our daily lives. What we’re seeing in the vehicle is simply a snapshot of a larger modern-day epidemic: unbounded multitasking and the social brain-influenced, growing attachment to our ‘life remotes.’
Driver state management systems offer the promise of filling in the gaps of our fractured attention, acting as an electronic co-pilot helping us to better prioritize tasks at the point of decision. EuroNCAP efforts appear to be moving towards encouraging these technologies in Europe, and Subaru just announced a system will appear in the 2019 Forester. These technologies and similar initiatives need to be accelerated in the U.S and elsewhere, adding to the documented benefits of technology such as AEB, which serves a lifeguard role. While these technologies can nudge us in a safer direction, the decision to practice safer phone habits ultimately lies in the hands of drivers. As a society and as individuals we need to grapple with whether we’ve allowed our life remotes to override our better judgement towards behaviors like texting while driving, compromising our safety in other tasks that truly demand our full attention.
It is critical that we begin to take a more systemic view of the issue, looking at the interrelated aspects of drivers, vehicles and the environment. It is clear that the transformative levels of automation requiring human involvement will also require a surge in human-centric design, in another sense protecting us from ourselves. In the end, while the future of mobility is highly coupled to increasing automation, one has to wonder how much longer society can ignore that, in many cases, driving has become the distraction.