Eyes on the Road

How active-driving assistance helps drivers stay alert.

New research from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety finds that when drivers initially use active-driving assistance – like Tesla’s Autopilot and Cadillac’s Super Cruise – they actually pay more attention, not less attention, to the overall driving task. AAA is encouraged by the research findings and urges drivers to learn the benefits and limitations of active-driving assistance at the time of vehicle purchase. This will help underscore the importance of remaining actively engaged when behind the wheel to maximize safety and encourage drivers not to become complacent over time as they use the system.

Insurance quoteWhen in use, active-driving assistance takes control of the vehicle’s acceleration, braking and steering, but the driver must be engaged and ready to take back control at any moment. While most participants in the study expressed a willingness to use active-driving assistance, more than 80% said they did not feel comfortable using it without monitoring the vehicle closely. More than half were uncomfortable relinquishing control of the vehicle to the technology when in heavy traffic (54%) or on curvy and hilly roads (65%).

“Data from the University of Utah study suggests that drivers new to active-driving assistance were more attentive to the driving environment, which is the driving behavior we want to see,” said Dr. David Yang, executive director of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. “The AAA Foundation has and will continue to invest in research to better understand how trust, acceptance and driving behavior will change over time with vehicle technology.”

This latest study’s findings are consistent with Foundation research released in December 2019, which found that drivers with less experience using active driver assistance technologies were more likely to remain attentive and engaged while the systems were active. The earlier research also showed that drivers who had more familiarity were more likely to drive distracted when the systems were active.

The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety partnered with researchers from the University of Utah to perform an on-road driving evaluation of 71 drivers between the ages of 21-64 operating up to four vehicles equipped with active-driving assistance. The study is unique in that, unlike similar research, data was collected during real-time, real roadway driving by measuring reaction time, brain activity and heart rate along with ratings for nervousness, inattention and excitement.

The test used the 2018 Cadillac CT6, 2019 Nissan Rogue, 2018 Tesla Model 3 and the 2018 Volvo XC90. Before testing, each driver reviewed training documents and watched a short video on the vehicle’s active-driving assistance.

“We are cautiously optimistic that with the proper information and training, drivers new to active-driving assistance will remain focused and alert when they use the technology,” said Rachel Sturm, AAA’s manager of traffic safety research and analysis. “Knowledge is power and the best time to learn what this technology can and cannot do is at the beginning, with a new vehicle owner consulting the owner’s manual and the manufacturer’s website.”

AAA recommends that new vehicle owners follow this PLAN:

Purpose – Learn the purpose of active-driving technology by reading the vehicle’s owner’s manual and visiting the manufacturer’s website.
Limitations – Understand what the technology cannot do; do not make any assumptions about automation. An active-driving system should not be confused with a self-driving one.
Allow Time for Testing – Allow time for safe on-road testing so drivers know exactly how this technology works in real driving situations.
Never Rely on It – Do not rely on this technology; instead, act as if the vehicle does not have it with the driver always prepared to retake control if needed.

“Drivers must learn their system’s capabilities without becoming complacent or over-reliant. We want these technologies to make our roads safer by reducing the number of crashes, injuries and deaths and the first step is to use them as intended,” said Sturm.

For more information on this and other AAA Foundation studies, visit www.aaafoundation.org.


Established in 1947 by AAA, the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety is a nonprofit, publicly funded, 501(c)(3) charitable research and educational organization. The AAA Foundation’s mission is to prevent traffic deaths and injuries by researching their causes and by educating the public about strategies to prevent crashes and reduce injuries when they do occur. This research is used to develop educational materials for drivers, pedestrians, bicyclists and other road users.

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