Opinion: Young Drivers Should Learn With Assist Systems Off

  • Nick Jaynes has worked for more than a decade in automotive media industry. In that time, he's done it all—from public relations for Chevrolet to new-car reviews for Mashable. Nick now lives in Portland, Oregon and spends his weekends traversing off-road trails in his 100 Series Toyota Land Cruiser.

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I recently got into a heated discussion with a friend about Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS) and whether or not young drivers should use them.

“Navigate’s alarming driving style forced Consumer Reports to liken the nerve-wracking experience to riding with a first-time driver.”

My friend is a Tesla owner and a fan of the company’s semi-autonomous driving system Autopilot. Citing a story from Medium titled “New drivers should use Tesla Autopilot immediately,” my friend argued that Tesla system and others like it are like training wheels for new drivers. And, given the growing prevalence of ADAS in new cars, new drivers should learn to utilize them to, firstly, fill in the gaps of their driving skill and, secondarily, get used to them because they’re only going to become more common and powerful.

“Why learn to manually drive, if your car in the future is going to drive itself better than you ever could?” he argued.

I eventually had to call our chat to a premature close. Because, like so many bullheaded Tesla owners who refuse to be wrong about anything, he wasn’t interested in hearing me out. So I decided to take my argument to the pages of Ride.

Essentially, my view is this: New drivers should drive not with all available ADAS activated. Instead, these fledgling motorists should learn to safely operate a vehicles with most all ADAS deactivated. That’s just the cliffs notes version, of course. Let me fully explain.

What Are Advanced Driver Assist Systems

Advanced Driver Assistance Systems are on a spectrum. They start at the basic end at anti-lock brake systems (ABS) and span up to Level 2 (and 2 Plus) automated driving systems like General Motors’ Super Cruise, Nissan’s ProPILOT, and the aforementioned Tesla Autopilot, which now includes a new feature called Navigate (we’ll get to that in a moment). These advanced systems can mostly, autonomously drive a car in limited environments, like on the freeway for example.

In the middle between ABS and Autopilot live systems blindspot monitoring, lane keep assist (LKAS), Adaptive Cruise Control (ACC), and even systems like Volvo’s pedestrian and cyclist detection with full auto brake. These are the systems that are becoming increasingly prevalent across most new cars. In fact, the federal government has mandated that common ADAS feature Automatic Emergency Braking be included on all cars sold in the U.S. by September 2021.

Engaging Tesla Autopilot
Autopilot’s new feature Navigate, alarming driving style forced Consumer Reports to liken the nerve-wracking experience to riding with a first-time driver. | Photo: Tesla

 

My friend argued that because data show that these systems make people safer — and young drivers are inherently more dangerous on the road and more susceptible to crashing — that ADAS should be enabled all the time in order to protect not only new drivers but also everyone else on the road.

While it is true that tests do show that these systems make avoiding an accident easier and also help mitigate the severity of a crash, data show that ADAS are also inviting people to drive less vigilantly.

Don’t Encourage Bad Habits

The main problem is that people get used to ADAS very quickly, once they have been exposed to them. In turn, they begin to become more lax in their driving.

A University of Michigan studied the effect that blindspot monitoring had on drivers. It found that when drivers’ vehicles were fitted with blindspot monitoring technology, it significantly reduced their tendency to look over their shoulder to check the lane themselves before changing lanes.

In July of 2017, Kelley Blue Book did an informal poll on its site, asking visitors about ADAS. Fifty-seven percent believe ADAS will eventually erode people’s driving skills.

“Without question, technology is making drivers lazier and less attentive,” Mike Harley, group managing editor at Kelley Blue Book, told Automotive News.

Carmakers already know this about people and their tendency to get complacent and lazy. Take the first fatal crash involving a Tesla Model S running Autopilot. An investigation into the crash found that the driver ignored Tesla’s warnings to remain alert, keep hands on the wheel, and ready to take driving duties back from the car at anytime. As a result, in the last 37 minutes of the driver’s life, before t-boning a semi, the driver had his hands on the wheel of his Model S for just 25 seconds.

It is expressly for that reason GM installed inward-facing cameras that watch drivers on all its Super Cruise-outfitted cars. It wants to know when you’re not paying attention.

The problem with new drivers relying on ADAS isn’t just a human laziness problem, though. There are still real technical concerns, as well.

The Opposite Of Training Wheels

First of all, there is no industry standard on — for example — how automatic emergency braking works. I remember a few years ago, when I was reviewing cars on a weekly basis, I’d get false readings from emergency brake systems all the time. Mercedes systems behaved differently than Volvo’s. Nissan’s were downright scary. Subaru’s were impressively robust. Some would read a parked car (or seemingly nothing) as an impending collision and warn me.

With Adaptive Cruise Control engaged, different cars from different brands had disparate driving styles and safety warnings. One time I was driving down the highway in an Acura MDX. Adaptive Cruise Control was engaged on the freeway. We were fast approaching a standstill. Suddenly, a big orange sign that read “BRAKE” flashed on the dash. It wasn’t clear whether the MDX wanted me to brake or whether it was indicating it was braking really hard. I didn’t brake. Thankfully, it did and the collision was avoided.

In confusing situations like the one I faced, drivers can’t always look to a vehicle’s owner’s manual for clarification. That’s because carmakers’ legal teams instruct them to be intentionally opaque about explaining ADAS for fear suboptimal wording could invite legal liability.

Volvo XC90 Cyclist Detection System
Some vehicles have ADAS that can detect cyclists and automatically apply the brakes, and some have ADAS that cannot. It is important to understand what limitations the ADAS on your specific vehicle might have. | Photo: Volvo

 

Furthermore, over the years, systems have gotten worse and not better. Take Autopilot’s new feature Navigate for example. Essentially, Navigate is designed to handle all freeway-driving duties, from autonomous lane-changes to passing slower vehicles. During their recent evaluation of the feature, Consumer Reports found that Navigate aggressively cut off other drivers, leaving little space between cars. Worse yet, Navigate sometimes passed other vehicles in the right-hand lane, which is illegal in some states.

Navigate’s alarming driving style forced Consumer Reports to liken the nerve-wracking experience to riding with a first-time driver. What’s more, it prompted the report’s authors to call for further government oversight of self-driving systems, like Autopilot, that purport to be safety features.

There’s also a failure rate to these ADAS. They’re not 100% reliable. Inclement weather, road condition, and general malfunctions, etc. can throw off systems’ reliability. We are not to a place where you can use systems as training wheels or as bumpers on a bowling lane.

And those were the similes my friend was invoking to argue his daughter should only use Autopilot while learning to drive. Except, that argument misses the point. Learning to drive is pretty much the opposite of learning to bowl. Professional bowlers don’t learn without bumpers, get really good, then put them up. It’s the other way around.

Plus, a driver might some day get in an old car that doesn’t even have ABS, let alone automatic emergency braking. If she’s been bouncing her ball off the bumpers for years, how on earth can she be reasonably asked to roll completely unprotected without bumpers?

The Basics

I don’t want to disparage or downplay the safety potential of ADAS. They’re good now and constantly improving, they will increasingly prevent crashes injuries, and potentially deaths. We have to admit that they are at the same time inviting (and thereby causing) more bad driving at the same time.

So, when it comes down to it, should you want to have your kids in a car loaded with safety technologies? Absolutely. Should you let your kid become a lazy and shiftless driver hoping that a robot will save her butt when she gets out of her driving depth? No way. We have to train our young drivers to be as skillful as possible and hope tech can pick up the slack, should it need to.


About the Author

  • Nick Jaynes has worked for more than a decade in automotive media industry. In that time, he's done it all—from public relations for Chevrolet to new-car reviews for Mashable. Nick now lives in Portland, Oregon and spends his weekends traversing off-road trails in his 100 Series Toyota Land Cruiser.

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