Distraction still deadly behind wheel of driverless car

Closing your eyes behind the wheel of a driverless car may not be as safe as you think, according to an Australian study of the futuristic technology.

RMIT University researchers tested the effect of distractions in autonomous cars and how long it took for drivers to react in emergency situations.

They say the findings should prompt transport regulators to “strictly prohibit” some behaviours to prevent accidents in the advanced vehicles.

The Melbourne study tested the reactions of 19 drivers behind the wheel of a self-driving car simulator created for the exercise.

Participants were tested on three behaviours: closing their eyes as if to take a nap, responding to work email, and scrolling through a social media app or watching an online video.

Their response time was tested after five minutes of the activity and again after 30 minutes.

RMIT lead author Neng Zhang said the researchers found all three activities proved to be significant distractions for drivers and impaired their response time.

“Resting was the biggest troublemaker, followed by working and, finally, entertainment,” he said.

“Some activity should be strictly prohibited – even five minutes of sleeping really puts people in trouble – they are fully distracted and cannot takeover safely.”

Dr Zhang said experiments also revealed drivers’ takeover time suffered more the longer they were engaged in an activity, as they required more time to adapt to driving.

Younger, more inexperienced drivers were found to respond the slowest in emergency situations, he said, while drivers who had driven the greatest distances, rather than the longest time, responded the quickest.

“We found driving experience and takeover performance were highly correlated,” Dr Zhang said.

“The more driving experience you have, the more likely you will have better takeover performance.”

The findings, the study said, showed transport regulators should not only consider behaviour but whether autonomous vehicles were “safe for drivers with different levels of experience”.

The National Transport Commission released a framework for self-driving vehicle policy in 2022 as Australian laws do not currently support the use of fully autonomous vehicles.

Cars with level one and level two self-driving features, such as lane-guidance, cruise control and automated parking, are approved for use.

But level three and level four autonomy, which would only require drivers to monitor a car’s driving performance, are yet to be approved.

Self-driving cars with the highest level of autonomy, which would not require a steering wheel or pedals, have yet to be publicly released.


Jennifer Dudley-Nicholson
(Australian Associated Press)


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