Special Coverage

Convergence

AUBURN HILLS, MI – Advanced active safety systems such as blind-spot monitoring and adaptive cruise control are proliferating at a dizzying pace, but auto makers and technology suppliers must be careful not to completely remove the driver's responsibility from the equation.

In essence, a fine line separates using technology to protect motorists from traffic hazards and supporting the bad-driving habits they've developed over time, Christian Schumacher, manager-advanced driver assistance systems for Continental North America, says during an event here to educate the media on the company's latest safety developments

“The (current) situation is similar to that of the first electronic stability control systems, which made some people think they could drive faster than they should,” Schumacher says.

Continental, like several other Tier 1 suppliers, offers a wide range of technologies that take driver safety far beyond the passive airbag and seatbelt. Many of these technologies will figure prominently in the company's display at the Convergence Transportation Electronics Conference Oct. 20-22 at Detroit's Cobo Center.

And given the rapid pace of improvements in computing power, these active driver aids will become even more widespread and invasive in the coming years.

From radar-guided cruise control capable of navigating stop-and-go gridlock, to lane-departure systems that pull a wandering vehicle back between the lines, to collision-sensing braking systems that activate on their own and cars that can parallel park themselves, these technologies all aim to partially relieve the driver of his or her duties behind the wheel.

Many times these silicon co-pilots act in the driver's best interest, such as when the human brain simply cannot process all the information necessary to safely avoid or survive a collision.

However, in other instances they amount to little more than conveniences that provide a false sense of security and free drivers to send text messages, apply makeup, tend to the kids in the back seat and, for the most part, become desensitized to the thousands of tons of steel sharing the road with them.

“We're in a transition toward semi-autonomous technology on the way to fully autonomous driving, but that's way in the future,” Schumacher says, acknowledging many people are prone to engage in ill-advised tasks while driving their cars and trucks.

“However, we want to ensure drivers don't rely too much on these (new safety systems).”

The most important element is the education of the consumer, he adds, noting Continental is very active in this regard at the dealer level because they have the closest interaction with drivers encountering new technologies.

“In the U.S., many consumers buy (vehicles) off the lot,” he says, making it paramount that the people at the point of sale understand the technology and can explain it on the spot to the buyer.

This is in contrast to some European countries such as Germany, where most people special order their vehicles. A wait of several weeks for a new car provides a better opportunity for auto makers to brief buyers on the uses of a vehicle's advanced features prior to getting behind the wheel, he says.

The various liability issues in the U.S. and the resulting culture of litigation complicates the arrival of interactive driver aids, as well. Many of these systems are meant to protect drivers from themselves and others on the road, yet if not introduced and used responsibly, they have the potential to instill overconfidence and do more harm than good.

Better driver education will be essential for these features to move forward, but many critics contend the current training system is ill-equipped to handle the basics, let alone complex new technologies.

For the time being, the responsibility of education lies with the developers of these features.

“We must be cautious with (implementing) new technologies for them to benefit all consumers,” Schumacher says.

msutton@wardsauto.com