Facebook Twitter

In our opinion: The adolescence of autonomous cars is a dangerous period

SHARE In our opinion: The adolescence of autonomous cars is a dangerous period
In this Friday, May 11, 2018, photo released by the South Jordan Police Department shows a traffic collision involving a Tesla Model S sedan with a Fire Department mechanic truck stopped at a red light in South Jordan, Utah.

In this Friday, May 11, 2018, photo released by the South Jordan Police Department shows a traffic collision involving a Tesla Model S sedan with a Fire Department mechanic truck stopped at a red light in South Jordan, Utah.

South Jordan Police Department

Regardless which party ultimately is found liable for a recent accident involving a partially self-driving Tesla Model S in South Jordan, two things have been amply demonstrated.

One is that drivers must remain attentive, no matter how smart their cars purport to be.

The other is that this period of time, when some cars have technology making them partially, but not fully, autonomous, can be extremely dangerous. Experts say it may be years before cars reliably and completely are self-driving. Until then, drivers must fight the urge to relax their attention.

Unless manufacturers become more serious about this problem, governments may feel the urge to impose regulations. That would be unfortunate.

The driver in South Jordan, a 28-year-old Lehi woman, reportedly told police she was looking at her cellphone when her Tesla slammed into a parked firetruck at 60 mph. Tesla officials said data recovered from the vehicle showed the driver engaged the Autosteer and cruise control functions 1 minute and 22 seconds before the crash, then removed her hands from the steering wheel.

Luckily, the driver sustained only a broken foot. No other injuries were reported. The car suffered major damage.

Other recent accidents nationwide have been deadly, however, including one involving a partially autonomous Uber vehicle and a pedestrian in Arizona.

Researchers at the University of Utah have been studying the effects of partially self-driving technology on human attention spans. With funding from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, they recently conducted tests in which volunteers drove back and forth to Wendover — one way in partial autonomous mode, the other in a fully manual mode.

Drivers wore headsets that measured brain waves. Video cameras were trained on them.

Preliminary data from these tests found “average heart rate decreased and heart rate variability increased when using autopilot,” which is consistent with mind wandering and “transitioning into a state of relaxation,” the researchers said.

Drivers were seen yawning and struggling to keep their eyes open. Their reactions were slower than those of other drivers involved in studies on distracted driving.

Researchers said the results were similar to those of studies involving pilots who put their aircraft on autopilot. The difference, however, is a car interacts almost constantly with other vehicles, road conditions and traffic signs.

Some television commercials make it seem as if semi-autonomous vehicles can relieve drivers of the need to be attentive. That is misleading.

However, the tendency to become drowsy on stretches of highway where a car is comfortably navigating turns on its own is quite understandable.

We would prefer the government refrain from regulating ways in which auto manufacturers keep drivers alert. Too much regulation could stifle innovation.

However, those manufacturers need to do more, whether that involves periodic beeps or some other cues to jar drivers back to the task at hand.

Part of the aim of the research at the U. is to guide manufacturers in that process. As recent accidents demonstrate, helpful data cannot come soon enough.

Drivers have enough worries about traditional manually-driven cars whose drivers are using cellphones, let alone those who are oblivious while their semi-autonomous cars barrel down the road.