GM studying driver behavior in self-driving vehicles

(June 27, 2012) DETROIT — How would driver behavior change in the self-driving vehicles that could be available by mid-decade?

General Motors and its research partners recently tried to find out by studying how non-driving activities influence driver behavior in self-steering, semi-autonomous vehicles. One key finding is that driver attentiveness can be improved through advanced driver assistance and safety features.

“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,” said Dr. Eddy Llaneras, principal investigator at Virginia Tech Transportation Institute on the study. “Offering some form of vehicle automation with the proper safeguards might be better than what is happening on our roads today.”

More than one in three drivers surveyed in the AAA Foundation’s 2011 Traffic Safety Culture Index, admitted to texting or emailing while driving, despite the vast majority of those surveyed agreeing such behind-the-wheel activities are unacceptable. 

The GM study examined the demands on the driver’s visual attention in hands-on steering and automated steering, both with full-speed range adaptive cruise control engaged. The studies took place in a driving simulator at Indiana University-Purdue University in Indianapolis and with VTTI on a GM test track in Michigan.

When engaging in non-driving activities, drivers tend to split their visual attention between the roadway and secondary tasks by making relatively frequent, but brief off-road glances. The study showed that   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.

“People have dreamed of having self-driving cars for decades, but having that capability will be a major adjustment for people when it is first introduced,” said John Capp, GM director of Global Active Safety Electronics and Innovation. “This study is helping GM and its research partners determine the best methods for keeping drivers engaged.”

The foundation for these future systems is the Driver Assist Package that will be available in November on the all-new 2013 Cadillac XTS and ATS sedans. The package includes features such as full-speed range adaptive cruise control and automatic emergency braking, which are designed to help prevent collisions caused by human error. The human factors research underway is helping GM and its suppliers identify what new technologies will be needed to ensure safe operation of future autonomous systems.

When asked, 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.

The Federal Highway Administration helped pay for the study but does not necessarily endorse all its findings.

GM, its partners and others are continuing to study the effectiveness of the driver monitoring systems, new ways drivers interact with their vehicles, and other active safety technologies that are key enablers for autonomous vehicles. These technologies are expected to ease drivers’ workload when traffic and road conditions allow, but they are not intended for drivers to completely “tune out.”

“At GM, we recognize that autonomous vehicles will require robust safeguards,” Capp said. “By studying driver behavior in automated driving scenarios we are better able to identify the types of driver assistance and safety features that automated cars will need.”