As robots take the wheel, driving skills may hit the skids

Driver-assist technology that keeps cars in their lanes, maintains a safe distance from other vehicles, warns of unseen traffic and slams the brakes to avoid rear-end crashes are rapidly spreading from luxury cars to everyday Hondas, Nissans and Chevys. But these automated aids aimed at improving safety are having an unintended consequence: They’re degrading driving skills.

“There are lots of concerns about people checking out and we are trying to monitor that now,” said Adrian Lund, president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. “Everything we do that makes the driving task a little easier means that people are going to pay a little bit less attention when they’re driving.”

An automated vehicle stops for a pedestrian during a test at the University of Michigan. Bloomberg photo by Jeff Kowalsky

For carmakers trying to address deteriorating driver skills, the stakes are immense. U.S. roadway deaths jumped 14 percent over the last two years, with more than 40,000 people dying in crashes in 2016. While speeding and more congested roadways bear some of the blame, distraction is another key culprit. Data released by the federal government show manipulation of handheld devices while driving, including texting or surfing the web, has been on the rise.

The semi-autonomous features that are the building blocks of tomorrow’s driverless cars were designed to compensate for inattentiveness behind the wheel. Instead, they may be enabling drivers to place too much faith in the new technology.

The auto industry is “terrified” about the unwanted side effects of their popular new features, and companies are scrambling to find ways to keep drivers engaged rather than glued to their smartphones, said Mark Wakefield, managing director and head of the automotive practice at consultant AlixPartners.

General Motors is installing eye-tracking technology on the Super Cruise feature coming to Cadillac models later this year, which allows drivers to take their hands off the wheel but requires watching the road. Nissan’s ProPilot Assist keeps the car centered and brings it to a stop in its lane if the driver goes more than 30 seconds without grabbing the wheel. Tesla last year implemented limits on drivers’ ability to go hands-free while using the company’s Autopilot system.

“You can be conservative in your design and emphasize safety over convenience to protect the consumer from themselves, which clearly is needed, but the whole industry is…

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