Is safe driving technology actually safer?

Does safe driving technology make an operator more alert?

New cars are now adorned with a multitude of technological bells and whistles.

Some serve entertainment value, but many serve the purpose of safer driving. Automotive technology can now help alert a driver of roadway hazards such as approaching traffic accidents through visual and audio GPS alerts. Flashing lights on side mirrors flash when cars travel in a driver’s blind spot. Back up sensors on bumpers beep when driver’s are reversing too close to an object. Ignoring these alerts may result in a roadway collision.

However, as our personal driving habits adjust to these new technologies, we may find our situational awareness decreasing. Situational awareness is our ability to understand what is happening in our environment so that we may use critical decision making to respond appropriately. The car’s alert system is now automated to scan and assess for roadway hazards.

One model of human attention, called malleable attention resources, states that our attentional capacity changes as our attentional demands change.

In the case of driving, this may cause drivers to pay less attention to the roadway, as much of the car is already automated to do it for them. Research supports this. Even with just some levels of vehicle automation, human attentional capacity decreases [1].

How do we encourage the growth of vehicle automation while also encourage users to drive less distracted? One idea might be to reward drivers through an “driver safety score.” Data gathered about a driver’s eye movements, phone/gadget use, speed, time to respond to roadway hazards, etc. could be shared with their automobile insurance company for incentives like a decrease in premiums.

How do we automate enough to help a driver but not so far as to hurt their attentional resources? Research suggests designing in driver support systems rather than in automation to replace the driver’s attention. Leveraging cognitive engineering in the design process along with simulation research will prove to be a valuable way to differentiate the two.