Aug 24, 2022 - Economy

Smart cars' biggest safety risk? They're boring to drive

Illustration of three road signs; one has a bored expression.

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

People driving cars that mostly operate themselves can drift into a dangerous state of fatigue, but one leading autonomous vehicle (AV) company has suggestions to keep drivers alert.

Why it matters: Autonomous test vehicles and increasingly automated personal cars are already all over the road, meaning we're all part of a big public beta test with potentially fatal consequences.

  • Overseeing a self-driving car for long stretches can be tiring, especially because drivers often don't have anything to do.
  • But drowsy drivers may not take control fast enough in an emergency that a car's computer can't handle — a phenomenon known as an "irony of automation," and one reason why cars could get more dangerous before they get safer.

Driving the news: New research from Waymo, a leader in self-driving technology, sheds light on fatigue in AV test drivers and how to prevent it.

  • The Google unit is urging the industry to adopt a multi-layered "Fatigue Risk Management Program," with practices and technologies to prevent, monitor and mitigate fatigue-induced risks in AV test drivers.
  • Waymo's findings could translate into fatigue-fighting technology for consumer cars.

More coffee isn't the answer, Francesca Favaro, Waymo's lead on safety research and best practices, tells Axios. Instead, Waymo is proposing a holistic set of countermeasures.

  • Driver-monitoring cameras can help, but technology alone isn't the solution, Favaro says.
  • Better training to recognize signs of fatigue, and regular self-assessments before, during and after a work shift are also needed, along with frequent breaks.
  • Assigning small in-car tasks — like pushing a button on the steering wheel to check an operator's motor and cognitive skills during prolonged periods of inactivity — is another way to monitor alertness.

The big picture: Fatigue is already a contributing factor in over 20% of highway crashes — and one of the reasons automakers are pursuing self-driving technology, given that robots don't get sleepy.

The backstory: Waymo first encountered the fatigue problem in the early days of the Google Self-Driving Car Project nearly a decade ago.

  • Even when volunteer test drivers were instructed to pay attention, they often became distracted or showed signs of fatigue.
  • Waymo concluded early on that the safest solution was to pursue fully autonomous technology, requiring no human intervention — like its modest robotaxi service in Phoenix.

Yes, but: Widespread deployment of fully autonomous vehicles is still many years away.

  • In the meantime, Waymo and other AV developers will continue testing their vehicles using trained backup drivers.
  • That means the public will be sharing the road with AVs in various stages of development for the foreseeable future, so it's critical that safety operators stay alert.

Of note: Waymo's research hits just as Tesla is rolling out the latest beta version of its "full self-driving" feature to untrained car owners.

The bottom line: You don’t have to be a passenger in an autonomous vehicle to have a vested interest in their safety.

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