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Tesla crash highlights a problem: When cars are partly self-driving, humans don't feel responsible

Russ Mitchell, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Automotive News

During the experiments, people are put in semiautonomous driving simulators to measure their reaction times when something goes wrong. When subjects were distracted, average reaction time in the simulator almost doubled, researcher Kelly Funkhouser said.

The longer the subjects remained "cognitively disengaged," the longer their reaction times got. Some fell asleep.

Some automakers are using the technology to try to make shared duties safer. The driver-assist robot system available on the new Cadillac CT6 tracks driver eyeballs and sounds a warning if the driver is not watching the road. If the driver fails to respond properly, the system gradually slows the car and pulls it over.

Tesla cars rely on steering wheel sensors to track driver awareness. In other words, the car monitors what the driver's hands are doing to determine the driver's level of attention.

That can be undermined: Third parties sell warning defeat devices that attach to the steering wheel for hands-free and alarm-free Autopilot driving. Tesla warns drivers not to use such devices. It also makes clear to drivers that they're expected to pay full attention to the road when using Autopilot.

The Tesla Autopilot system, like systems from Cadillac, Volvo, Mercedes-Benz, Audi, Lexus and others, fits into the Level 2 or Level 3 categories for semiautonomous and autonomous cars set by the Society of Automotive Engineers. At Level 2, where most driver-assist technologies stand now, the driver is expected to pay full attention. With Level 3, the robot drives most of the time but not all the time. There is no clear line of demarcation between those two levels.

Some companies are afraid that semiautonomous driving and shared duties will lead to accidents that draw media attention and turn the public against robot cars. Ford, for one, has said it will skip shared duties and, when the technology is ready, go straight to Levels 4 and 5, where no human driver is required at all.

Tesla -- which is based in Palo Alto and led by Elon Musk -- is equipping its new Model 3 with hardware it claims will support full autonomy, and it's charging $8,000 for the suite. The company has offered no information on how long buyers will have to wait for software to support Level 4 robot drive.

Waymo, the robot-car arm of Google parent company Alphabet Inc., likewise eschews semiautonomous systems. Already, it is running a ride-hailing service in and around Phoenix that is completely driverless. The passengers can sit and back and watch the steering wheel turn all by itself, with no human in the driver's seat.

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