Danger: 'Safe' Driver Ahead; Increasing Technology in Cars Makes Motorists More Likely to Have an Accident

Article excerpt

Byline: DAVID WILLIAMS

ACTIVE steering, Adaptive Cruise Control, Anti- lock Braking, Anti- Skid Control , Parking Radar, Adaptive Forward Lighting and Blind-Spot Information System. We've never been safer, right?

Wrong. New research from Brunel University has confirmed an alarming - and long-suspected - anomaly. The more you do for a driver, the more dangerous you make him.

Scientists took two groups of motorists - 24 expert drivers and 20 learners - to put the theory to the test. They made them "drive" a simulator and looked at the effects of overloading them - getting them to do too much at the same time - or underloading them.

The latter involved switching on an automated steering-andbraking system that let the car follow the steering and acceleration movements of the car in front.

If the lead car drove around a bend, so would the following car; if it slowed down, so would the following car. It's the kind of technology that has already been developed by firms such as General Motors and Honda.

Then came the scary bit. Towards the end of the drive, the Adaptive Cruise Control - which maintains that safe distance - was made to fail so that it wouldn't detect the braking action of the car ahead, forcing the driver to intervene to prevent a crash.

When the ACC was used on its own, without the automatic steering, both groups of "overloaded" guinea pigs coped with the emergency. But when both systems were in use and the braking system failed, half of all the learner drivers "crashed".

Researchers found that the devices led the drivers to switch off to such an extent that they were no longer concentrating sufficiently on the task in hand. It had turned drivers into mere passengers. The expert drivers fared better, but only just avoided crashing.

Given the level of automation manufacturers plan to give us over the next few years - I recently glimpsed the future when I "drove" an astonishing "self-drive" Vauxhall Vectra without touching brakes or steering wheel and without crashing - it is alarming stuff. …