SAE Brake Preview: Will Safer Cars Crash More Often?

[dropcap]I[/dropcap]magine the proud owner of a new vehicle, one equipped with a dazzling array of driver-assistance features. The owner drives the car off the lot and is soon on the highway.

The driver has decades of experience behind the wheel, but minutes of experience with all the new technology in the car.

It’s worth asking whether he understands his own vehicle. Is it possible that the latest safety features will create confusion — and more crashes?

In Utah earlier this year, a woman driving a Tesla appears to have overestimated the vehicle’s capabilities. She had her hands off the wheel for over a minute before it crashed into the rear of a parked fire engine. During this time she was looking at her phone.

As driver-assistance features go from rare to commonplace, these sorts of accidents are bound to happen more often, creating conversation and, possibly, controversy.

Kelly Funkhouser of Consumer Reports will keynote the SAE Brake Colloquium. The focus of her work is the interaction between driver and vehicle. She thinks the industry needs to take steps to make those interactions safer and more predictable.

Kelly Funkhouser

The following is an edited version of a conversation between The Brake Report and Funkhouser.

The Brake Report: Just out of curiosity, how did you get into this field?

Kelly Funkhouser: My specific research at the University of Utah involved understanding both the cognitive state and some of the physiological measurements of drivers when they’re interacting with automation systems, whether that be adaptive cruise control or lane centering, and so on.

My emphasis was really understanding how people use the systems and how they perceive the systems to behave.

One of the labs at the University of Utah is heavily invested in studying the usability of infotainment systems, driver distractions, etc. I realized that distracted driving is going to need to be studied entirely differently when cars are automating part of the driving.

It’s too early to even predict if these systems are going to allow you to be more distracted, or if monitoring the systems is going to require more effort and attention and take away from the potential to be distracted.

TBR: Can you give me an overview of what you’re speaking about at the Colloquium?

KF: I’ll provide some of the consumer insights as to braking systems that are becoming more advanced, such as automatic emergency braking (AEB) and other collision-avoidance systems — how consumers perceive the systems and what their expectations are as to how they work and when they work.

Recently Consumer Reports put out a survey related to advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS), and we found a lot of really interesting things relating to people’s knowledge of the systems and what they perceive the systems to do or not do.

Specifically with AEB, it’s really confusing to consumers right now. They don’t know if their car has it, let alone what it does. The problem stems largely from some of the terminology used to sell or describe the systems. There’s really no consensus right now as to what the systems are called, and that’s even before explaining what they do.

Basically it’s the Wild West out there with these systems.

TBR: What sort of steps going forward will help solve some of these problems?

KF: A uniform terminology regarding these systems is important. So is providing drivers more information as to whether they have these systems and what they do.

We’re a big proponent of seeing AEB be successful, so just getting more information to to the driver while these systems are still new is really important.

You might put a fantastic feature in a car, but if people don’t know how to use it they’ll either misuse it or turn it off.

We really want to drive home the importance of knowing how the consumer interacts with these systems. From the perspective of the driver, they really just care that these systems all behave in the same way.

TBR: Could you see a situation where there’s so much bad publicity about these systems that we have to take a step backwards before moving forward?

KF: Absolutely. Especially with braking systems like AEB where there are potential safety benefits, the general perspective is that it is linked closely to other automated systems that may not have potential safety benefits, like automated steering.

All the publicity may help drive innovation, but also there’s a significant risk in something going wrong and it changes everyone’s perspective on all these new technologies. We saw that with the fatal Uber crash in March. It doesn’t just affect Uber. It affects Waymo and everyone else, too.

Everyone is so closely dependent on everyone else right now, it’s kind of make it or break it in ensuring that the systems are used correctly.

TBR: What are some takeaways you want people in the brake industry to have?

KF: More information about what the system is doing is going to promote correct and safe use of the system.

How the system behaves should match the mental model consumers have formed from past experiences.

As a cautionary point going forward, we recently had a big story about the braking in the Tesla Model 3. We found some inconsistencies in its performance. About a week later Tesla then updated the software in the car, which changed how the brakes performed. We’re kind of on the fence as to whether that’s good or bad. But either way, something as critical as your braking system being changed over the air needs to be explained to the consumer, rather than just a quick note that their brakes were changed.

Kelly Funkhouser gives her keynote presentation Monday, October 15, at 8:30 in Salon A-F.

Earlier in The Brake Report: SAE Brake Colloquium preview

Ben Nussbaum
Ben Nussbaum

Ben Nussbaum, Chief Content Officer of The Brake Report, has more than 20 years experience in publishing. He was the founding editor for USA Today's line of special interest magazines and the founding editor for i5 Publishing's newsstand one-off magazine program. He lives outside Washington, D.C. Email him at [email protected].