Study Shows Need to Train Drivers on Vehicle Automation Systems

25 Jun, 2019 Nancy Grover


Sarasota, FL ( – Technology designed to make driving safer may have the exact opposite effect if drivers aren’t fully informed. A pair of new studies clearly demonstrates that many drivers don’t understand and overestimate the capabilities of a vehicle’s new tools.

The surveys by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety may provide insight as to why motor vehicle accidents are the leading cause of workplace fatalities, both within and outside the transportation industry.  


The very name of a system can mislead some drivers, as one of the surveys discovered. A system called ‘Autopilot,’ performs some driver functions in Teslas. Examples are lane centering, where lateral control of the vehicle is automated; or adaptive cruise control, in which speed and following distance is automated. These functions are designed to be used under the supervision of the driver. Other systems included in the survey were ‘Traffic Jam Assist,’ ‘Super Cruise,’ ‘Driving Assistant Plus,’ and ‘ProPilot Assist.’

“None of these systems reliably manage lane-keeping and speed control in all situations,” the IIHS said. “All of them require drivers to remain attentive, and all but Super Cruise warn the driver if hands aren't detected on the wheel. Super Cruise instead uses a camera to monitor the driver's gaze and will issue a warning if the driver isn't looking forward.”

Nevertheless, many of the 2,000 survey respondents had unrealistic perceptions about what the systems could do, especially the ‘Autopilot.’ For example, nearly half said it would be safe to take their hands off the steering wheel while using this system. Six percent said it would be OK to take a nap.

“While a name alone cannot properly instruct drivers on how to use a system, it is a piece of information and must be considered so that drivers are not misled about the correct usage of these systems,” wrote Eric R. Teoh, the study’s author.

The IIHS noted several recent accidents where “Tesla owners have been misusing Autopilot in this way, with fatal results.” An accident in March claimed the life of a driver in Florida who crashed into the side of a tractor-trailer. The National Transportation Safety Board said the Autopilot was engaged at the time and the driver’s hands were not detected on the steering wheel. A similar accident occurred the previous year in California.

"Tesla's user manual says clearly that the Autopilot's steering function is a ‘hands-on feature,'” said IIHS President David Harkey; “but that message clearly hasn't reached everybody.”

It’s a Cluster

Instrument cluster information is another source of misinformation for some drivers, according to the IIHS’ second survey. The status of various automation features are communicated to drivers via the instrument cluster.

“Displays are important because they tell a driver how a system is responding to situations or when a system is temporarily inactive,” the report explains. “For example, a lead vehicle may disappear from the display when that vehicle is cresting a hill and no longer detected by the system's radar. Similarly, lane lines may disappear from the display when the lane markings on the road are no longer visible to the system's cameras.”

Drivers need to understand the information they are seeing, since the systems can “behave unexpectedly,” the report said, “and changing circumstances may require the driver to intervene.”

To find out the level of drivers’ understanding, the IIHS study had 80 volunteers look at the display of a 2017 Mercedes-Benz E-Class with the ‘Drive Pilot’ system. Participants were asked about the operating status of the features, and, if they were inactive, they were asked to explain why. Prior to the testing, half the volunteers received a brief orientation about the instrument cluster icons.

“In the study, certain key pieces of information eluded many of the participants,” the study said. “While almost everyone was able to understand when adaptive cruise control had adjusted the vehicle speed or detected another vehicle ahead, most participants, regardless of whether they received the training, struggled to understand what was happening when the system didn't detect a vehicle ahead because it was initially beyond the range of detection.”

While most of the people who received brief training were able to identify when lane-centering was inactive, they often were unable to explain why the system was temporarily inactive.

"If your … system fails to detect a vehicle ahead because of a hill or curve, you need to be ready to brake,”Harkey said. “Likewise, when lane centering does not work because of a lack of lane lines, you need to steer.”

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    About The Author

    • Nancy Grover

      Nancy Grover is a freelance writer having recently retired as the Director, Media Services for She comes to our company with more than 35 years as a broadcast journalist and communications consultant. Grover’s specialties include insurance, workers’ compensation, financial services, substance abuse, healthcare and disability. For 12 years she served as the Program Chair of the National Workers’ Compensation and Disability Conference® & Expo. A journalism/speech graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University, Grover also holds an MBA from Palm Beach Atlantic University.

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