Thursday, September 22, 2016

Smarter Driving Technology Makes for Safer Drivers and Safer Drives

Ok, ok, I know I've blogged several times about self-driving cars and how I can't wait to try one.  I know they are being extensively tested. But in the meantime, it looks like I don't have to wait for a self-driving car for drivers to be safer.  Driving tech is already supplementing many driving tasks for drivers as reported in an article published in the NY Times. Tech May Help Steer Older Drivers Down a Safer Road explains that tech is making cars smarter, allowing cars to do things that make driving safer (for the driver, passengers and other drivers).

[S]marter cars ...  can detect oncoming traffic, steer clear of trouble and even hit the brakes when a collision appears imminent.... A few of these innovations, such as blind-spot warning systems, are already built in or offered as optional features in some vehicles, primarily in more expensive models....But more revolutionary breakthroughs are expected in the next few years, when measures such as robotic braking systems are supposed to become standard features in all cars on U.S. roads.

Sure, sure drivers of all ages will benefit from smart cars. But, as the article notes, the application for elders has great value.

[T]hose in their 70s and older are more likely to become confused at heavily trafficked intersections and on-ramps. Aging also frequently limits a body's range of motion, making it more difficult to scan all around for nearby vehicles and other hazards. And older drivers tend to be more fragile than their younger counterparts, suffering more serious injuries in traffic accidents.

"Anything that reduces the likelihood or severity of a collision is really a technology that is primed for helping tomorrow's older adults," says Bryan Reimer, research scientist for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's AgeLab and associate director of the New England University Transportation Center. "We are moving toward an ecosystem where older adults will increasingly be supported by the technology that may help enhance their mobility."

Thinking about buying a car in the near future. Well consider this.  "The presence of safety technology will be a key consideration for three-fourths of the drivers older than 50 who plan to buy a car in the next two years, according to a recent survey by auto insurer The Hartford and MIT AgeLab. In an indication that priorities are shifting, only one-third of the surveyed 50-and-older drivers who bought a car during the past two years focused on safety technology."

Some of the driving technology is already available, with rear view backup cameras proliferating.  There are cars that can parallel park for the driver, and as seen on commercials, do other tasks to make driving safer. The article mentions several that are either in use, can be added to a vehicle, or will be available before much more time passes.

[T]he auto industry vowed  to make automated emergency brakes a standard feature by September 2022, but it won't be that long before the technology is widely available. Toyota plans to build it into most models, including its Lexus brand, by the end of next year....Cameras on a dashboard screen that show what's behind the car have become commonplace in recent years and will be mandatory on all new cars by May 2018. The equipment is expected to be especially helpful for older drivers with a limited range of motion....Other technology expected to assist older drivers includes automated parking, and adaptive headlights that swivel in the same direction as the steering wheel and adjust the beams' intensity depending on driving conditions and oncoming traffic. ...Robotic systems that temporarily assist with highway driving already are available, most notably in Tesla Motors' high end Model S. The electric-car maker released its Autopilot feature last fall, prompting some Model S owners to entrust more of the driving to the robot than Tesla recommends while the system is still in testing mode. For instance, some drivers have posted pictures of themselves reading a newspaper or book with the Model S on Autopilot, or even sitting in the back seat.

(On that last point, Yikes and should I point out that we're talking about driving technology, not self-driving cars). All of these safety innovations are great, and maybe they will allow people to continue driving longer than they would be able to do without the innovations. Of course, we still want to be sure that unsafe drivers are off the road. At least it looks like I have some cool options while waiting for my self-driving car.

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My wife and I recently bought a 2016 Prius with all the features, smart braking, lane assist, self-parking, etc. etc. It seems clear to us that Toyota is testing these features in anticipation of developing a well-tested self-driving car, though Google seems to be ahead of the car manufacturers in emphasizing safety over market-appealing features.

In general, the features work well, though they don’t anticipate as well as I as a driver might prefer. For instance, when I see brake lights ahead on the freeway, I ease off the accelerator, watch the developing situation, and prepare to brake. The self-driving features on the Prius continue full speed up to near to the slowing car ahead and then suddenly brake to a stop or to the slowed speed of the traffic. There seems to be limited ability to anticipate.

Similarly, when a car in merging into the lane immediately in front of the car, the 2016 Prius doesn’t take cognizance of the merging car until it is at least halfway into the lane, after which alarms begin to sound and the car brakes sharply to avoid collision. The reverse happens when a car is exiting the freeway in front of the Prius while the Prius is continuing. The Prius then brakes sharply, slowing unexpectedly in traffic, which could in itself cause a traffic hazard.

One hopes that the cellular connectivity built into cars like the 2016 Prius allow Toyota to learn from these undesirable characteristics and to upgrade the onboard software remotely to continuously improve the safe driving behaviors of the automated driving systems.

The difficulty with deploying these systems to older drivers is that such drivers not only tend to drive less and less but they also tend to hang onto to aging cars for twenty or more years. Older people will say that they have no need to consider a new car since the old car still drives well or they may simply prefer the familiar to the unfamiliar.

In the absence of a cognition test to activate automobiles, many people with multi-year licenses continue to drive well past the point at which they have become a hazard to themselves and, particularly, to others they encounter while driving. It’s not age, per se, which is the problem, but the loss of discernment, vision, and other essentials for safe driving and we need systems that test drivers before every drive for impairment whether it is drug or alcohol related or merely reflects the tragic decline of aging.

Posted by: Jack Cumming | Sep 23, 2016 10:30:39 AM

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