accelerating — and how best to hand them the wheel when
conditions get sticky. “Transfer of control is one of the burning
questions,” says Anuj K. Pradhan, PhD, a research scientist who
studies driver behavior and injury prevention at the University
of Michigan Transportation Research Institute.
For instance, Pradhan asks, how much time does the driver
need to regain control of the vehicle if the automated system
encounters a situation it’s not equipped to handle? How should
the car alert the driver to take over? Should the car monitor the
driver’s attention levels and tailor alerts accordingly — a beep if a
driver is watching a movie, but a loud alarm if the driver is dozing?
Researchers are still in the early stages of answering such
questions, he says.
Some scientists are exploring ways to keep drivers tuned
into the driving environment. Matthews and colleagues have
explored the benefits of using cellphones to keep drivers alert.
They put volunteers into driving simulators that mimicked
fully automated vehicles. As they “drove,” some volunteers were
periodically asked trivia questions via phone, and prompted to
reply by voice or text. When the drivers later took back control
of the simulated vehicle, those who had engaged in the trivia
game braked more quickly in response to a hazard than did
volunteers who weren’t sent phone prompts (Proceedings of the
Human Factors and Ergonomics Society 56th Annual Meeting,
Of course, a large body of evidence has shown that
cellphones, and especially texting, cause ample distractions of
their own. More research is needed to understand the best ways
to use technology to prevent passive fatigue, Matthews says.
Meanwhile, other researchers are exploring how best to
present drivers with information about driving conditions
without distracting them. “The last thing you want a driver
doing in an event where they need to take over control is to not
look at the road,” says Gregory Fitch, PhD, a research scientist at
the Center for Automated Vehicle Systems at the Virginia Tech
As automakers add more gauges, alerts and alarms,
dashboards turn into virtual cockpits. Poorly presented
information could confuse or distract drivers, Ward says.
“When you have systems conveying lots of information, all
competing for the driver’s attention, that information may not
be immediately understandable by the driver.” In fact, in a study
for the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety (2014), Strayer and
colleagues found that hands-free in-vehicle technology, such as
voice-controlled systems for handling phone calls or tuning the
radio, is more distracting than a traditional cellphone call.
A rocky road
Such findings make some experts wonder whether we’re coming
at the idea of automated vehicles from the wrong direction. In
Stanton’s view, automation should hover in the background,
ready to take over only when people make mistakes —
preventing drivers from changing lanes if they’ve failed to check
their blind spots, or helping them swerve to miss a person in the
crosswalk on a dark, foggy night.
“Automation would be a safety net to catch you when you do
something stupid,” Stanton says.
In many ways, the role of automation is still up for debate,
Ward says. Some think humans are hopelessly error-prone and
that automated systems should replace them entirely. But others
The 2015 Range Rover Evoque has an automated
feature that helps drivers parallel park, but the car
may not be able to detect small objects, such as
animals or children, the company says.