Are smart cars making drivers dumb?

Driver-assistance systems and their effect on drivers

From ACC (adaptive cruise control) to V2V (vehicle-to-vehicle) communications, it seems like the gamut of Advanced Driver-Assistance Systems (ADAS) that are making cars smarter have now far exceeded the letters of the English alphabet, and there’s even more on the way.

Most motorists welcome it, this writer included. But there are a few who grimace at the mere mention of ‘park assist’ as they opine that this, along with other advanced features, simply make drivers dumb.

For the record, ADAS aren’t just these radar, infrared, and 360-degree cameras that allow your car to see and detect other vehicles and even obstacles. Even your trusty old ABS (Anti-lock Braking System), which turns 92-years old this year, falls under that category. Basically, it’s any and all electronic systems that aid in driving and parking the vehicle.

Other common ADAS you may have heard of are blind spot monitors, forward collision warning, hill-start assist, lane departure warning, parking assist, and tire pressure monitoring system.

All of them use sensors which are governed by a program that’s run by the vehicle’s computer. The operation of each ADAS varies between simple to extremely complex but all are designed to do one thing, improve vehicle safety.

While the end-goal sounds caring and very humane, there is some truth to the premise as a few of these ADAS take away certain core skills (staying in your lane, checking the side-view mirror) drivers are required to master and perform when they’re behind the wheel.

Several studies have shown that drivers are becoming complacent to the point of actually allowing themselves to be distracted by things like SMS, YouTube videos, and Facebook posts.

According to a 2019 report by non-profit group AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, drivers who use ADAS were twice more likely to engage in distracted driving while using the systems versus those who don’t.

“Over-reliance on these systems can put drivers and others in dangerous conditions during critical moments,” said Dr. David Yang, executive director of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.

This point is driven home harder by this survey from US insurance firm State Farm. Of all the drivers who use ACC and lane departure assist, 62-percent say they’ll read and send text messages; more than 52-percent will actually have the guts to manually enter a phone number on their mobile; and at least 60-percent will hold their phone while talking.

Then there’s the Yerkes-Dodson Law which stipulates that the relationship between performance and mental motivation are directly proportional. When the latter goes up, so does the former. It means that a certain amount of stimulation/challenge is required for drivers to reach the proper level of engagement and concentration. When ADAS takes over stuff like watching for road markings and speed adjustments, carelessness kicks in.

That’s a lot on the cons column of something designed to protect us. But before you start turning off your reverse parking sensors and hill-descent control, check this out.

Blind spot monitoring is the one ADAS that has taken a lot of flak. Critics say it untrains drivers from using the side-view mirror by making them over-rely on tech that checks for vehicles on the adjacent lane. That being said, a 2020 study by non-profit org, Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) shows that lane-change accidents of models with this feature are 14% lower than units without it and injuries related to this mishap decreased by 23%.

Global data and analytics company Lexis Nexis Risk Solutions also adds that insurance claims for bodily injury and property damage of vehicles with ADAS are down 27% and 19% respectively.

And that’s just the here and now. Swiss Re, the world’s largest reinsurer, estimates that ADAS has the potential to reduce the number of motor accidents in the future by 25%, which in turn will help slash auto insurance premiums by a whopping US$ 20 billion. That’s clear proof of protection, without equivocation, today ‘til tomorrow.

So, we’re much safer with smarter cars, that much we know, but does it really make drivers dumber?

Perhaps this is a question better asked introspectively. Do you take your eyes off the road for Spotify because you know the radar is looking out for you? Does ‘cross-traffic alert’ let you forget to check for oncoming traffic when exiting a parking slot? Do you allow yourself to drive distracted often because you know ADAS is there? If you answer yes to any, your driver IQ just dropped several notches.

Remember, there always comes a time when technology breaks down. It happens at home and even at the office. Just because your car is smart, doesn’t mean you should let your guard down. Don’t be dumb. Always keep your focus on the road and never, ever drive distracted.