Everybody wishes they had a ‘KIT’ car

Morning traffic in Joburg illicits a wide range of emotions in motorists, fluctuating from rage to depression, anger, annoyance and even the occasional laugh. Most recently while stuck in traffic I noticed the driver of a BMW X6 applying her makeup, not an uncommon sight, but to use her iPhone’s front camera to act as a mirror was new for me.

Motorists are often distracted while they drive, myself included; I was after all looking around at others and not focusing on the road. General Motors are well aware of this problem and have launched a research project trying to find out how non-driving activities influence driver behaviour in self-steering, semi-autonomous vehicles. One of their key findings is that attentiveness can be improved through advanced driver assistance and safety features.

“Drivers are already engaging in risky behaviour, 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. “Offering some form of vehicle automation with the proper safeguards might be better than what is happening on our roads today.”

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.

Whilst a driver assisted car may be some way off from becoming today’s equivalent of Knightrider’s ‘Kit’, it does raise an interesting question; by developing such driving technology does this encourage motorists to pay even less attention to the road? Now I don’t want to engage in a circular philosophical debate, but in my mind a car system that shocks drivers when their attention wonders may serve a better purpose, although that may just be my own road rage talking. Never the less the developments in driver assist technology can be seen as a welcomed addition to the road should they help prevent careless mistakes.

“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.

Justin Stephenson

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