AAA finds driver monitoring systems need significant improvements

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More and more cars on the road have advanced driver assistance systems that offer SAE Level 2 type semi-autonomy (where the car can accelerate, brake and steer, but still requires human supervision). And it’s clear, especially from some very irresponsible Tesla owners, that better driver control is needed to prevent drivers from abusing the system and driving their cars dangerously. Many of these cars simply monitor the small steering inputs for driver involvement, while others, such as GM’s Super Cruise, Ford’s BlueCruise and Subaru’s DriverFocus, use infrared cameras to monitor the driver’s head and eyes. To find out how effective these systems are, AAA collected four vehicles, two of each system type, and tested them. The organization found that the camera systems are much better than steering wheel systems, but even camera systems could use improvement. And the biggest problem AAA discovered was that all systems could be fooled for dangerous amounts of time.

The four cars used by AAA were a 2021 Cadillac Escalade with Super Cruise, a 2021 Subaru Forester with EyeSight and DriverFocus, a 2020 Tesla Model 3 with Autopilot, and a 2020 Hyundai Santa Fe with Highway Driving Assist. The first two had CCTV, while the last two had steering wheel surveillance. And in normal use, when the driver wasn’t actively trying to thwart the monitoring system, the camera system was much quicker at recognizing when the driver wasn’t paying attention. The time between looking away (either just looking down or turning the head down) with the hands off the wheel and the driver warning system was less than 10 seconds on average for both the Cadillac and Subaru. AAA also found that effectiveness was not reduced at night, probably because the cameras were infrared. As for the steering wheel systems, both the Hyundai and Tesla sat on average for nearly a minute between the driver being distracted with the hands on the steering wheel and the car issuing a warning. At the 65 mph speed limit on the toll road where AAA was testing, that’s nearly a mile away without the driver paying attention. And while the camera system performed much better, the organization noted that the alerts should come even faster than the measured nearly 10 seconds.

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While significantly better than wheel-based surveillance, the camera-based system was still prone to deception. To throw off the systems, AAA’s testers didn’t use any kind of tools or outside materials to throw them off, just their persons. For example, the steering systems allowed the tester to give a quick wobble, and for the camera systems, the tester would try to adjust his head and eyes to fool it while doing other things. In these situations, the time between the initiation of distracted driving and the appearance of a warning increased dramatically. With CCTV surveillance, the time to alert the driver increased to more than two minutes. The steering wheel control systems could be fooled for an average of about 5.5 minutes. That’s 2 miles of distracted driving for CCTV surveillance and 6 miles for steering wheel surveillance, both of which are clearly extremely dangerous oversights. AAA further noted that owners of these vehicles would likely be able to fool the systems even longer because they would be more familiar with them.

There is another important problem that AAA has discovered. The test period for the monitoring systems was 10 minutes, during which time the driver assistance systems could be reactivated. There was never a time when, after the driver took over again, one of the cars would jam the aids, essentially forcing the driver to remain involved. The organization finds it dangerous to allow a driver who consistently fails to pay attention to use the system that distracts him. We tend to agree, certainly either a full lockout until the car is parked, or even just a period of time when the features are unavailable.

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In short, monitoring systems are important in implementing these semi-autonomous advanced driver assistance systems, and camera systems seem to be by far the most effective. But they still need to be more responsive, they need to be tweaked so as not to be fooled, and features need to be excluded for common abusers.

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