Semi-automated driving doesn’t mean driver-less driving. Although automated safety features do a lot to help drivers, they can’t take over the task of driving completely.

Some Drivers Have the Wrong Idea About the High-Tech Safety Features of New Cars

If you have driven a new vehicle lately, you can’t help but notice all the new safety features available–especially if you have just switched from an older model. But some people don’t fully understand what the technology can and cannot do.

Understanding Automation

Automobiles have come a long way since their inception back in the late nineteenth century. Even after American manufacturers began producing cars and trucks by the millions, the first vehicles had almost none of the safety features we take for granted as standard today. That includes retractable seat belts, not introduced until the 1950s.

Two decades into the twenty-first century, drivers benefit from a wealth of sophisticated safety features. But according to a study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, some don’t quite understand how the technology works and its limitations. When 2,000 respondents were asked about automated vehicle systems, 33% to 48% suggested that when such a system is in use, it is okay to take your hands off the wheel and do other things.

“None of these systems reliably manage lane-keeping and speed control in all situations,” notes the Institute. All of them require drivers to remain attentive:

When asked whether it would be safe to take one’s hands off the wheel while using the technology, 48 percent of people asked about Autopilot said they thought it would be, compared with 33 percent or fewer for the other systems. Autopilot also had substantially greater proportions of people who thought it would be safe to look at scenery, read a book, talk on a cellphone or text. Six percent thought it would be OK to take a nap while using Autopilot, compared with 3 percent for the other systems.

Such misunderstanding can be costly. Recently, a Tesla driver was killed when his car, which was on autopilot, crashed into a tractor-trailer. A preliminary investigation indicated that the driver’s hands were not on the steering wheel at the time of the car accident.

Dashboard monitors may also be a stumbling block. Understanding what all the icons mean takes a little time, and some drivers never really figure them out. An automated system can unexpectedly fail or work improperly. If a warning sounds or an icon suddenly lights up, you need to know what the warning means. Otherwise, a serious problem may result that was perfectly avoidable.

Colorado Leads the Way

Vehicles are currently available with so-called Level 1 and Level 2 technology, automated systems designed to assist a human driver with multiple tasks.

Level 5 technology–full automation–is what automakers are working toward, and Colorado has been a leader in testing autonomous or driverless vehicles. Earlier this year, a driverless shuttle was introduced in Denver as part of a pilot program. It travels on a pre-determined limited route going between 12 and 15 mph and holds up to a dozen people.

The Colorado Department of Transportation believes that automation will reduce auto accidents and fatalities. About 94 percent of vehicle crashes are due to human error. So eliminating much of that error by automation should improve safety…if and when drivers know how the automation works.

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