GM is looking at ways in which semi-autonomous driving technologies, which could be available in production vehicles by mid-decade, will influence driver behavior. Because the technologies set to be introduced in the coming years are designed to lighten the driver's load in certain circumstances but aren't advanced enough to let them "tune out" completely, GM is attempting to ascertain which technologies will help ensure the safety of vehicles with future autonomous systems.

For the research, GM and its partners looked at the "human factors" of semi-autonomous vehicles. "The focus was on how people might change their behaviors from what they normally do when they drive cars," GM's Research Program Manager Jeremy Salinger tells Gizmag. "How people behave when they start experiencing vehicles that do more of the driving for them."

GM conducted the studies at a driving simulator at Indiana University - Purdue University in Indianapolis, and on a test track in Michigan, in which the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute (VTTI) was also involved. Researchers observed participants to examine a driver's visual attention in hands-on steering and automated steering situations, both with full-speed range adaptive cruise control engaged.

When drivers were engaged in non-driving activities (think texting), the researchers observed that the participants split their visual attention between the roadway and secondary tasks by making relatively frequent but brief off-road glances. Salinger points out that, even in semi-autonomous cars, it's necessary to remain focused on driving, and on the road. "This is not a time that you can start reading a book," he said.

GM and other auto manufacturers are at work adding sensors and automated actions to cars, but the designers are very conscious of the fact that drivers still need to keep an eye on the road to monitor the car and its safety. GM had to ask, "What does it take to encourage drivers to continue to pay attention to the roadway and traffic?" Salinger said.

"One of the things it takes to manage a driver's attention is to keep track of where the driver is paying attention. How much do you monitor the driver's behavior and encourage the driver to pay attention," says Salinger.

The study showed that when automated steering is in operation, advanced driver monitoring and assistance features, such as Forward Collision Alert, which visually and audibly warn drivers when a collision is imminent, increases drivers’ focus on the road ahead by 126 percent.

When self-driving cars first become available to the public, there will likely be monitors in place to ensure human attention is directed in the right place. "I'm certain that it will require the driver to pay just as much attention as they do now … to keep track of the vehicle and respond if something happens that the vehicle is not capable of handling," Salinger says.

With Google experimenting with autonomous cars and Nevada implementing regulations for them, it's important for auto manufacturers to look at how loosening the grip on the wheel affects drivers.

This isn't GM's first experience with self-driving vehicles, with the company having created the EN-V concept vehicle, a two-seat self-driving vehicle for urban mobility. Self-driving features, however, are moving from concept vehicles to the production line. The 2013 models of the Cadillac XTS and ATS sedans will include a Driver Assist Package, which includes features such as full-speed range adaptive cruise control and automatic emergency braking.

"Driver assist features such as adaptive cruise control and automatic emergency braking are paving the way to self-driving automobiles," says Salinger. "Some things are coming out this year that are basically the precursors to allowing cars to drive themselves." These technologies focus on safety features, warning systems and crash avoidance and are the stepping stones that will allow future cars to drive autonomously.

"There is going to be a progression of features that will become available over the next number of years that will allow the drivers to give the car more control," says Salinger. "Most car companies will understand that customers, in many cases, want to drive themselves. In situations where driving isn't more enjoyable, they will let the car do more of the work." Salinger offers examples such as the car taking over in inclement weather, or elderly drivers who might benefit from a car that will get them where they want to go safely.

“At GM, we recognize that autonomous vehicles will require robust safeguards,” adds John Capp, GM director of Global Active Safety Electronics and Innovation. “By studying driver behavior in automated driving scenarios we are better able to identify the types of driver assistance and safety features that automated cars will need.”

More information on the study is available in the video below.

Source: GM

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