Assisting the Inattentive

Last night I clicked on a news video on the bbc, before a story, there was an ad for Mercedes Benz that got my attention. I’ve searched all over to find it and post it here, but have been unsuccessful. I did transcribe it. It consists of brief shots of the face of a driver telling a story with transitions to related roadway footage.

driver #1: “I was drifting into the other lane…
driver #2: “It got my attention, telling me that I wasn’t paying attention…
driver #3: I had no idea the guy in front of me had stopped short, but my car did…
driver #2: my Mercedes did.

Then the narrator comes on and talks about the car’s Attention-Assist system. I didn’t transcribe that part. But I did some googling.

I found this video:

And some articles:

Mercedes-Benz showcases technology that can predict — and avoid — crashes

I tried wandering out of my lane, and that triggered a system — available now on Benz cars — that jiggles the wheel to shake you awake. It’s effective. Then I tried getting all jerky in my driving movements, and that triggers a sensor that decides you’re too sleepy to drive: An image of a coffee cup appears, and a gentle suggestion to pull over and take a catnap.

I had great fun with a Volvo in Gothenburg years ago driving into an inflatable dummy of a car. A sensor in the wagon recognized the obstacle and slowed the car down: Even though we still hit the dummy, we hit it at about 30 percent of the speed we’d have done otherwise. Mercedes is working with a similar system, which recognizes objects 200 feet away and slows you down even if your foot is pressing the accelerator.

Car Safety Technology: Crash Avoidance

For most of the history of auto manufacturing, carmakers’ efforts in the area of safety have been devoted to developing “passive” safety features — seat belts, air bags, building a stronger frame for the cabin, side-impact door beams, etc. All those things help you stay safe once you are involved in an accident.

But just as advanced technology has changed almost every other industry, so too has it changed the automotive industry, leading to the design of more “active” safety features.

It started with now-common features like anti-lock brakes (ABS) and electronic stability control systems (ESC). But in recent years, engineers have taken safety technology to a new level. And these days, they spend more time and money researching and developing “crash avoidance” features and technologies. These computerized systems, instead of protecting you if a crash occurs, help you avoid accidents in the first place.

Ford announces new radar-based collision-avoidance system

Set for arrival in 2009, Ford has developed a new radar-based active collision avoidance system that combines auditory warnings with assisted braking to help reduce the incidence and severity of accidents. By pre-charging the brake system and engaging an electronic brake assist system, Ford hopes the new Brake Support feature will help more drivers to avoid rear-end accidents.

Ford is launching the new Collision Warning with Brake Support system across several vehicles in its lineup. Also featured as active safety devices will be the new for 2008 adaptive cruise control and Blind Spot Information System with Cross Traffic Alert, which will be new for 2009 alongside the new collision warning system. Also demonstrated recently was the Ford Smart Intersection, which allows cars and intersections to communicate key information. The package of features, taken together, is a multi-faceted attack on driver inattention.

Does simply paying attention while driving an automobile exceed human capability?

What do you think about this technology?

18 replies
  1. fred_dot_u
    fred_dot_u says:

    I suppose I’m being cynical, but I see all these “new developments” as a means of reducing driver responsibility and reducing the need for skilled drivers on our roads.

    At a time where cyclists are not skilled enough to operate safely in too many circumstances, the technology is now being developed to reduce skill requirements for motor vehicle operators.

    “I’m too lazy to look around when I change lanes, so I have to have the lane change safety feature.” (Currently in production and available on various automobiles)

    I’d read of a system with transponders in all motor vehicles, communicating with other motor vehicles in the area, enabling the computers (passed responsibility) to keep track of all traffic (with transponders) making the roads “safer”.

    I’m all for this sort of thing on restricted-access roadways. Let’s go one step farther and make motor vehicle traffic limited to those roadways and require other forms of transport to get to them.

  2. Will
    Will says:

    I for one welcome are new machine overlords. Maybe they’ll do a better job of keeping all road users safer.

  3. Tom Armstrong
    Tom Armstrong says:

    I’m with Fred on this one. It’s part of taking responsibility away from the “operator” (using the term loosely), as those operators clearly have no business being at the wheel.

    After years of hearing anti-cycling folks say, “get those @!&@$ bikes off the road!” I have gotten to where I want to respond by saying “If you want a road free of bikes, keep your car on the interstate!” and prohibit motor vehicle use (save for delivery vehicles) anywhere beyond a small radius from the Interstate interchanges.

  4. NE2
    NE2 says:

    driver #1: “I was swerving into the other lane to avoid a kid who ran into the road…
    driver #2: “It got my attention, telling me that I didn’t have to yield to the kid because he was at fault…
    driver #3: I had no idea my car would keep me from swerving, but my car killed that kid…
    driver #2: my Mercedes did.

  5. Mighk Wilson
    Mighk Wilson says:

    Notice how your ability to remember phone numbers degrades when your phone remembers them for you?

    Same principle is in play with cars that “drive themselves” to various degrees.

  6. John Brooking
    John Brooking says:

    NE2 has some good points. My biggest concern with more automated technology (including cars that “drive themselves”, which evidently Google of all companies now has a prototype of) is that they will not be any good at detecting peds and cyclists (like traffic lights), and the conclusion will be more roads banning bikes because “it is too dangerous”, and banning is the easier option technologically and politically.

  7. Tom Armstrong
    Tom Armstrong says:

    @ Mighk: I HAD noted that about remembering phone numbers. The inference you draw seems valid to me as well. It’s all about finding engineering solutions for human problems–misdirected efforts if ever there were any.

    @ NE2: Again, spot-on. It is, sadly, the logical conclusion one might draw when pondering this technological “advance.” How soon before events prove the need for further advances in the system, like the ability to recognize other legitimate road users like pedestrians and cyclists? How many folks would be killed by the technology before scenarios like that raised by John Brooking come to pass?

  8. Traci
    Traci says:

    It seems that everyone loves new technology, and motor vehicles are no exception. They just keep evolving through the additions of more and more features, and like others stated, it gives people a reason to avoid any personal responsibility for their actions. Every time there is some type of injury (usually involving a child), there is a public outcry and car manufacturers rush to provide a “fix.” For example, kids often try to open doors or roll windows up or down (whether accidentally or on purpose), so people wanted some feature to prevent that. There are sensors for backing up so that children are not hit due to people driving SUVs and not seeing them. I’ve even heard that people are pushing for some sort of device to remind them that their child is in the car so that they don’t forget them, therefore preventing deaths in hot vehicles. But I’m wondering where do we draw the line?? I think the majority of individuals would think cars that could completely drive themselves would be a great benefit to society. That might cause major issues for law enforcement and insurance companies trying to determine who actually caused an accident though 🙂

    • Mighk Wilson
      Mighk Wilson says:

      Our culture treats technology as a fetishes and saviors instead of as tools. Notice all the ridiculous design “innovations” for bicycles. The simple, reliable, diamond-framed, chain-driven bicycle is seen as too “primitive,” so it needs to be “improved” with automatic shifting, complicated frame designs, etc.

      • bencott
        bencott says:

        my hope is that there will be a backlash of people who are sick of all the “improvements” and want to recapture that pure experience of driving without a robo-nanny telling them they’re sleepy. sadly, those who put purity before ease and convenience will always be in the minority. all i can do is proudly and defiantly ride my fixie and drive my 3 pedal auto.

  9. Will
    Will says:

    I’d hate to be the contrarian of the group, but I think any safety improvements they can come up with to keep everyone safe is good. That doesn’t mean give up the fight against distracted driving, but every little bit helps. I don’t think people will be less careless then they already are with these safety features, therefore I see the upside, not the downside of them.

  10. Lyle
    Lyle says:

    People will pay attention if the consequences of inattention are painful enough *to themselves*, or their loved ones, but not to strangers. These technologies are a step sideways. I’d prefer something with a bit more bite. Not something horribly draconian, but at least visible. For example, the first time the inattention-alert triggers, a yellow light on the roof could flash for five seconds. Every time thereafter, the light would flash five seconds longer than it did previously. Then if you see someone driving down the road with a yellow light flashing, you know to look out for them. But as a culture, we seem to be always trying to let people avoid personal responsibility, rather than making them accept it.

  11. acline
    acline says:

    In his book “Traffic,” (required reading for all humans), Tom Vanderbilt demonstrates that driving is a very complex task and may even be outside our evolutionary ability to cope at speeds faster than we can run.

  12. 2whls3spds
    2whls3spds says:

    Very few “drivers” on the road to today are what I would consider competent, much less safe drivers. Somewhere along the way someone decided to implement safety improvements in lieu of proper driver education and training. Guard rails, road improvements, air bags, automatic braking, traction control…


    • NE2
      NE2 says:

      Except that all the improvements you cite (except automatic braking and maybe traction control) also help even if all drivers are competent, because true accidents sometimes do happen. A tire may blow out at any time, and a guard rail or air bag could make the difference between life and death.

      • 2whls3spds
        2whls3spds says:

        I have no problem with the improvements themselves, it is the use of them to replace competency and awareness that I have a problem with.

        Spend some money on driver education and training. Follow it up with recurrent training and testing. Driving is a privilege treat is as such.


        • Laura M
          Laura M says:

          One of the downsides of these improvements is that drivers take more chances and drive at the edge of their ability. It’s not just the technologies in vehicles, but in roadways as well – design standards that are intended to improve safety but in turn also increase speeds.

          I believe these intelligent technologies are legislatively mandated and all car manufacturers will be including them at some point (both in the US and EU). there are definitely some upsides, but there will also likely be some unintended consequences. These technologies will be are reserved for the 5G network/band? If I’m not mistaken. Other up to the minute information that will be available includes weather conditions, congestion information, parking information, etc.

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