We just bought a year-old luxury SUV. On the highway on the way home, I tried to switch lanes without signalling, and it wouldn’t let me – it felt like somebody was pulling on the steering wheel in the opposite direction. It turned out to be lane-keeping assist, one of the safety features I hadn’t known about. I was totally rattled. It seems like some of these safety features could actually be more of a distraction than a help. – Andre, Calgary
At its worst, some safety tech can be like a backseat driver who tries to grab the steering wheel. If it’s giving you help when you don’t need it, that could potentially be a dangerous distraction.
“If the car is yelling at you when there’s nothing wrong or if it’s wrestling to keep you in the middle of the lane, your attention is inside the car instead of on the road,” said Angelo DiCicco, director of Young Drivers of Canada’s advanced driving centre. “You’re arguing with your vehicle instead of looking to see if someone’s in your blind spot.”
More cars now don’t just warn you of danger, they actually step in to prevent it with tech such as lane-keeping assist and automatic emergency braking.
Lane-keeping assist is a step up from lane-departure warning (different companies use different names for their features), which uses cameras to keep track of the lines on the road and warns you – by emitting a beep, or vibrating the seat or steering wheel – when you’ve crossed them without putting your signals on.
But lane-keeping assist actually steers you back into the right spot. Or what it thinks is the right spot.
Depending on the system, it can be a gentle nudge, or you may have to wrangle with it.
This, along with adaptive cruise control – which keeps a set distance between your car and the car in front – can make it seem like your car is almost self-driving.
“Lane-keeping assist is a driver-assistance feature, not a self-driving system – the driver still has to pay attention to the road and what the vehicle is doing,” said Russ Rader, spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), in an e-mail. “It’s not foolproof.”
In fact, lane-keeping assist is one of the least popular crash-avoidance technologies and many drivers switch it off, Rader said.
In a survey of IIHS employees who had driven one of five vehicles – a 2017 Audi A4, a 2017 Audi Q7, a 2016 Honda Civic, a 2016 Infiniti QX60 and a 2016 Toyota Prius – with lane-keeping assist and active cruise control, drivers preferred lane-keeping helpers that they thought didn’t correct their steering too often.
Are safety features a safe bet?
So, how does this tech actually fare in preventing crashes?
In insurance claims data, automatic emergency braking led to a 56-per-cent reduction in front-to-rear crashes causing injuries, compared to 20 per cent for systems that just warned drivers of an impending collision without braking. With lane-departure warning, there was a 21-per-cent decrease in crashes causing injuries. There was no information for lane-keeping assist.
And other tech? Back-up cameras, which will be required in all newly built cars starting next month, decreased back-up crashes by 17 per cent.
“The bottom line is that some of this technology is working to prevent crashes. But the systems are not 100-per-cent effective,” Rader said. “Among the current crop of [advanced driver-assistance] technologies, automatic emergency braking has been shown to be the most effective in preventing crashes.”
In the United States, car makers have committed to having automatic braking standard on all cars by 2022.
But car buyers – or someone using an unfamiliar rental or fleet car – don’t always understand the technology and its limitations. With cars having so many features – and complicated settings and menus – you might not even know that a car has lane-keeping assist or how to turn it on, said Young Drivers’ DiCicco.
Plus, the systems work differently depending on the car’s manufacturer.
“Some people pick up the car and don’t think they need an explanation because they understood their last car, but you can’t buy a car in 2018 that was even like a car in 2014; there are so many more features now,” DiCicco said. “Or maybe they only got to page 140 of the 146-page manual.”
Increasing driver confusion?
You might not know why your car is squawking. Or you might not understand that your adaptive cruise control only works if you’re going over 40 kilometres an hour.
“A lot of this technology is adding to distracted driving,” DiCicco said. “If you’re not fluent with the language it’s speaking, there will be translation errors that will use your mental horsepower.”
If your car is crying wolf and gives you too many false alerts, you may ignore one that’s signalling a real danger.
Or if it takes over when it’s not supposed to – say, if it suddenly hits the brakes when you approach a manhole in a parking lot – you might turn it off entirely.
Plus, the systems work differently, in terms of how you turn them on and off or how they alert you, depending on the manufacturer.
And even if you do come to rely on them, they might not work in rain and snow. Even in perfect weather, there are hazards that they’ll miss.
“The new car commercials show a car suddenly coming to a stop, but they don’t show us that the pedestrian has to be in a certain visual angle and can’t be stepping out from behind a mailbox,” said DiCicco, who has tested pedestrian detection on two of the cars in their test fleet. “It hasn’t been 100-per-cent successful – it didn’t work four or five times out of 10 – and I have the bruises on my leg to prove it.”
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