I've been thinking a lot about automated vehicles and driver assistance technology lately.
Not just after the recall of Tesla vehicles with its "Full Self-Driving" feature, but because there is still way too much confusion and misunderstanding about automated technology … not to mention terminology.
Which driving automation systems require a human behind the wheel? Which don't?
Can you really take a nap while operating a vehicle with automated driver assistance features? No!
I took a fresh look at a document Alliance for Automotive Innovation produced in 2021 called Level 2 Driver Monitoring Principles.
It's a framework for how to safely integrate Level 2 driver assistance systems into a vehicle with specific ideas to help ensure they're used responsibly — and as intended.
Now would be a good time for policymakers — at NHTSA and in Congress — to revisit what we were getting at with those monitoring principles almost two years ago.
The technical term: Level 2 advanced driver assistance systems, or L2 ADAS. It combines lane centering assistance technology with adaptive cruise control. You may have this feature in your vehicle now.
At its core, this technology is meant to support a human driver operating behind the wheel. Let me repeat: This feature requires the human driver to be attentive and engaged. Not some of the time. All of the time.
On the other end of the spectrum: autonomous vehicles, aka Level 4/5 or fully automated. These can be things such as robotaxis or driverless package delivery that don't require a human (and aren't for sale to consumers, at least not yet).
Why spend time on definitions? Because some existing Level 2 systems are being marketed as full self-driving or "Autopilot" and that's not what they are.
Which gets me to our circa-2021 principles for safe Level 2 driver monitoring. Here's what we called for:
1. The name of the advanced driver assistance system should reflect the functionality of the system and not suggest any greater capability. Autopilot and full self-driving leave the impression a driver has no role in the operation of the vehicle. That's not true, and leads to the consumer confusion I mentioned above.
2. Driver monitoring should be standard in any vehicle with a Level 2 ADAS system. It should be activated when Level 2 ADAS is turned on and shouldn't be overridden or disabled.
3. If a driver monitoring system determines a driver is not paying adequate attention, the system should issue escalating warnings until the human reengages. If the driver doesn't focus on the driving task, the system should take corrective actions — like disengaging the Level 2 ADAS feature or bringing the vehicle to a safe stop.
4. Potential misuse and abuse of a Level 2 ADAS ought to be evaluated during the design process for driver monitoring safety technology.
5. In-vehicle cameras should be considered a component of Level 2 ADAS monitoring systems — particularly if the Level 2 system provides hands-off capability — to help identify driver inattention.
YouTube videos of people sleeping behind the wheel of a moving vehicle? Dangerous and stupid, but also not how these systems are designed to work. That's misuse. A human driver — who is paying attention — is required.
Over time, more automated features and even full self-driving (the real kind) will enter the marketplace. That's important as the auto industry works to reduce roadway crashes and injuries through automation. There's already lots of testing and progress to help realize that safer future.
In the meantime, speedy adoption of our driver monitoring principles would be a great starting point to improve safety on the roads.