Study Reveals How Drivers Really Use Automation

Cadillac's Super Cruise hands-free technology allows semi-autonomous driving on more than 200,000 miles of compatible highways in the United States and Canada. (Cadillac)

According to a new study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), real-world use of advanced driving assistance systems (ADAS) does not mirror what many of us – or even researchers – would likely expect.

In conducting the study, MIT scientists monitored driver behavior while utilizing Cadillac's Super Cruise system during partial automation. The results were surprising.

Pnina Gershon, the study's lead author, stated, "In the back of my mind, I thought that drivers would probably put the automation on when the system was available and then disengage it when they got off the highway." Gershon, a research scientist at MIT's Center for Transportation and Logistics AgeLab, continued, "That was my expectation. But it's surprising there's a high degree of collaboration between the driver and the system, even though it's hands-free driving."

According to the paper 'Driver Behavior and the Use of Automation in Real-World Driving,' subjects regularly took control of the system far more often than was anticipated. Drivers implemented, on average, 9.98 interventions/transactions per drive. Also notable, the interventions did not occur as a human response to danger. Instead, the human drivers simply preferred to drive.

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The prevalence of this behavior, dubbed Transfers of Control (TOC) by the researchers, could reframe how we perceive the transition to full autonomy. Rather than a passive relationship, frequent TOCs point to a dynamic collaboration between the system and the driver.

Much of the current media coverage around the use of driving control assistance systems focuses on accidents that occur when such systems are misused (i.e., Tesla crashes when a driver is sleeping while Autopilot is engaged). However, the MIT study is likely the first to explore how often and why drivers override these new technologies.

While the study focuses exclusively on the Cadillac Super Cruise system, the data will likely inform all manufacturers as they roll out new driver-assistance packages. For example, Volvo's new Highway Pilot launches in the 2022 XC90, and the upcoming Teammate system is available in the 2022 Lexus LS 500h.

MIT has not yet published any data from any other systems. However, the Institute did confirm that parallel studies of other assistance packages are currently ongoing.