The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has come up with a unique new way to find out what drivers are paying attention to.
The safety organization devised a method to determine how thoroughly drivers using partially-automated lane-keeping systems are monitoring the road ahead by strapping a giant pink stuffed bear wearing a high visibility jacket to the back of a car.
The electronic aids can self-steer a car within a lane and control its speed, but all require the driver to be prepared to take over at a second’s notice. In most cases, the driver has to keep a hand on the wheel to prove they are paying attention, but GM’s Super Cruise uses a facial recognition system and allows the driver to remove their hands completely while it is in operation.
IIHS sent three groups of drivers onto the highway behind the wheel of a Mercedes-Benz C 300 with active lane keeping assist. One had experience with this type of system and used it, another was using it for the first time and the third had never used it and left it turned off.
Each of the 31 drivers then hit I-70 in Maryland for an hour, during which the car with the bear drove into their view three times, 30 seconds each. When they were done, the drivers were asked if they’d noticed anything unusual during their trips.
Nearly all of the drivers with system experience noticed the bear and were more likely than the others to remember how many times it passed by while the first-timers were least likely to report seeing it at all.
Cameras mounted in the cars found that the experienced drivers were scanning more of the road instead of just looking straight ahead, suggesting that unfamiliarity with the system among the first-timers reduced their situational awareness.
IIHS notes that the test involved a small sample and isn’t conclusive of anything, but offers added insight into how drivers interact with the technology. It also notes that there are plenty of real-world instances of drivers relying too greatly on the limited capability of the systems and getting into accidents while taking their eyes off of the road completely to use handheld devices or operate controls in the vehicle.
In any event, if you’re cruising through Maryland and happen to see a car with a pink bear on the back of it, you’ll know it’s not just some bizarre decoration.