Okay, here's the story. General Motors is worried about you. They've been reading the latest Traffic Safety Culture Index
, published in 2011 by the American Automobile Association (AAA), and they were glad to hear that you freely acknowledge that behaviors like driving while texting, sleepy, or drunk are stupid and dangerous and no one should ever do them. But they were quite concerned when you also freely admitted that you do some or all of these things with alarming frequency. Fancy yourself a bit of a daredevil, do you? Well, that will be so attractive when you are spread all over the road like the world's most tragic condiment.
AAA, who conducts and analyzes all the survey research data that goes into the annual Index, finds this highly worrisome, as well. So worrisome, in fact, that they took the bold step of releasing a memo saying that drivers need to change their attitudes, away from being irresponsible, and start being responsible. They also challenged drivers to "examine their driving habits and make a resolution to drive safer." Oh yeah. They went there. Siddown
, all you non-responsible drivers. You just got Indexed.
(I don't know why we haven't been trying this with other sticky policy problems. Racists, drug dealers, tax dodgers, neglectful parents: all of you need to change your attitudes. Go on now, scoot! I'll let everyone know how that pans out.)
GM also seems to feel that this appeal to everyone's better natures may not be sufficient, though instead of conveying this in snarky remarks they express themselves by commissioning studies. Specifically, studies about self-driving cars, or more precisely, cars with varying degrees of automated autonomy. GM wants to know how automation affected driver behavior, including driver attentiveness. They collaborated with the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute to conduct "naturalistic" driving studies - that is, studies that are based on what drivers do while actually driving, rather than using a road simulator. (The drivers are on a track, however, so it's not a perfect reflection of road behavior, but closer than you'd get with simulators.)
These studies produced some interesting results. GM was particularly interested in these:
- "Driver attentiveness can be improved through advanced driver assistance and safety features."
- "Advanced driver monitoring and assistance features, such as Forward Collision Alert, increases drivers' focus on the road ahead by 126 percent when automated steering is in operation, which increases detection and response to roadway events."
- "Some study participants expressed strong interest in having a vehicle that could drive itself, particularly for long trips when lane centering and full-speed range adaptive cruise control could help lighten the driver's workload."
- "By an amazing coincidence, GM is developing just such a vehicle, and even more amazingly is the maker of Forward Collision Alert." (Oh, this quote is from me. I got it verbatim.)
Does it seem that the first and second findings are pretty much the same? Well, that's because you just don't understand science. Does it also seem that a study whose avowed aim, according to GM's Director of Global Active Safety Electronics and Innovation, is "to identify the types of driver assistance and safety features that automated cars will need," would have more findings than that? Yes, it does. But you won't find the actual study itself anywhere - not on VTTI's website, not on GM's website, not on Pirate Bay.
Did I say before that this was the story? Let's revise that. That was a
story. Here's another one, a retelling of the first. AAA finds that most of us - about 86 percent - engage in one or more driving practices that we know to be stupid and dangerous. AAA says, hey guys, come on, don't do that.
GM then does a study that's premised on this idea that driver inattention poses an ongoing and worsening hazard on the road. The study finds that automated driving technologies - such as, for example, those under development by GM - increase driver attention. It produces other findings too, presumably, but we don't know and most likely won't know what any of them are.
GM says that automated driving features won't mean that it's okay for drivers to "tune out." But the study's principal investigator says, "Drivers are already engaging in risky behavior, and are likely to continue doing so given the prevalence of smartphones and other portable electronics, so why not make it safer for them and the people around them…Offering some form of vehicle automation with the proper safeguards might be better than what is happening on our roads today." Drivers won't pay attention? No matter! Why fight it? We'll sell them a car that will pay attention for them. And if it means they don't have to make any inconvenient or uncomfortable behavior changes, they'll buy it. Consumers love
a product that panders to their worst instincts.
In its research for the TSCI, did AAA ask any of these self-confessed hypocritical miscreants what measures would be effective in getting them to stop multi-tasking behind the wheel? No, they did not. If they had, they might have had some better recommendation than that everyone should think about what they've done, and resolve to do better.
Did GM ask, in its study, how much of this "increased driver attention" was actually "greatly heightened driver anxiety" due to the fact that they were being hurtled through space by a computer chip? No, they did not, or they did and they didn't like the answer. If they'd got a finding on this that they liked, you know we'd be hearing about it. Ditto the question of how long it would take for people to get used to self-driving cars and stop being hypervigilant.
So with its study and its technology, GM is peddling an answer to the problem of distracted driving. And its answer is: give in. And buy our stuff, it'll help you give in!
I don't think there's any question that assistive driving technologies have the potential to make great contributions to road safety and to driving in general. I'm completely ready to believe that a computer will be better than me at monitoring my blind spot, centering me in my lane, making sure I don't back into things, noticing peripheral hazards like clueless lane drifters (who wouldn't exist if all cars had these technologies) and dreamy pedestrians (who WILL still exist).
(I won't budge on parallel parking, though. I'm damn good at it, and no computer is going to take that away from me.)
So when these technologies are helping
with distracted driving, great. They can help mitigate its consequences when it happens accidentally. They can help prevent it with their various alerts and warnings. But they can't be thought of as a way to relieve the driver of responsibility for the car he's driving and ultimately controlling.
When we start saying, as the study's PI did, "You know drivers are space cadets, so let the car do the driving," - that's the opposite of helping. If we let them take the place of the driver's attention, the technologies are a crutch that are actually supporting the driver's distraction. They're saying "We know you'd rather be tweeting. Don't worry - we got this."
Are you really worried about us, GM? If so - stop helping.
Photo: General Motors researchers, such as Innovation Program Manager Jeremy Salinger, are studying driver behavior in semi-autonomous driving situations.