The findings of a very unique real-world driver attentiveness test were recently published by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). The agency was able to decide whether systems like GM’s Super Cruise and Tesla’s Autopilot make drivers less vigilant on the road using a 2019 Mercedes-Benz C300 fitted with a Level 2 Advanced Driver Assistance System (ADAS) and a giant pink teddy bear wrapped in a yellow high-visibility jacket.
The study included drivers experienced with Level 2 driver-assist systems as well as drivers with little or no experience with ADAS. The IIHS asked drivers who are familiar with Level 2 systems to test the Mercedes-Benz C300’s ADAS. A group of drivers who were not familiar with ADAS were also given the task of driving with the device turned on. Finally, a group of drivers unfamiliar with the vehicle’s Level 2 system were given the challenge of driving without the advanced driver-assist feature turned on.
The IIHS had an SUV with a giant pink teddy bear strapped to its back pass the Mercedes-Benz C300 three times while the participants rode for around an hour on Interstate 70 in Maryland to test their situational awareness. The SUV with the colossal stuffed bear remained in front of the drivers for about 30 seconds each time. After that, the participants’ reactions were assessed, and they were asked if they noticed anything unusual during their hour-long trip.
Surprisingly, virtually every driver experienced with Level 2 systems observed the massive pink bear. During the hour-long evaluation, the same group counted how many times the bear passed the C300. Inexperienced drivers performed poorly with Level 2 systems, with many inexperienced drivers who used the C300’s ADAS unable to recall the giant pink teddy bear at all.
“Our data suggest that Level 2 driving automation has the potential to improve a driver’s situational awareness (SA) once he or she is familiar with the technology, although it does not guarantee it. Unfamiliar drivers, however, appear to have even more difficulty maintaining SA when using the system than when driving without it. On average, participants who were familiar with Level 2 systems showed the highest degree of SA about the bear when using the system, unfamiliar participants who drove with the system off had moderate SA, and unfamiliar participants who drove with the system on demonstrated the lowest SA,” the IIHS wrote.
Drivers who correctly recognized the giant stuffed bear spent more time scanning the road ahead of them, according to videos taken from inside the C300. These drivers, particularly those who were familiar with Level 2 systems, tended to peer out the side windows. On the other hand, those who didn’t see the bear, spent a lot of time concentrating on the road straight ahead. Drivers who didn’t see the bear even once spent a lot of time staring at different parts of the C300’s dashboard.
Based on the findings of the IIHS study, it appears that drivers should gain some experience with Level 2 systems before being given access to more advanced driver-assist systems like Tesla’s Full Self-Driving Beta, which is set to be rolled out to a larger number of electric car owners in the coming weeks. After all, situational awareness is crucial while driving, and making drivers nervously fiddling with their vehicles’ features when running a Level 2 device could pose some dangers. However, the IIHS findings support one of Elon Musk’s more notable points: systems like Autopilot could potentially serve as a formidable safety feature if used safely and properly.
The IIHS’ situational awareness study could be accessed below.