The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s latest piece of testing tech isn’t a high-tech machine—it’s a giant fuzzy pink teddy bear in a yellow high-visibility jacket. Unfortunately, one group of drivers might miss this bear passing them on the roads more often than most: those who are new to using automated driver assistance systems on their cars, according to the results of one delightfully bizarre IIHS test.
The motor vehicle safety group’s test may sound silly, but it had a very serious point. The IIHS wanted to see how the use of advanced driver assistance systems like GM’s Super Cruise and Tesla’s Autopilot affect how much attention a driver pays to the road. So, they attached something to a passing vehicle that would be unmissable anyone who doesn’t live inside a permanent art car parade: one gigantic stuffed animal in a bright silly outfit.
Yes, this is really how it’s labeled in the report.
IIHS Research Scientist Alexandra Mueller, who came up with this idea, explained that the study needed something eye-catching but not too distracting for the experiment to work:
“There are a number of laboratory methods for measuring situational awareness, but they don’t work so well on the road. The giant teddy bear on the back of the vehicle helps give us an objective measure of the driver’s focus that’s relevant to driving and doesn’t interfere with how that person normally drives.”
This, of course, leads to all kinds of surreal phrasing in the IIHS report, like “teddy bear stimulus,” “bear presentations,” “bear vehicle” and “greater bear SA,” with SA standing for “situational awareness.” Science!
Situational awareness is a genuine concern when it comes to these new automated driver assists. Currently, the highest level of automation offered in a production car as defined by SAE International’s Level 0-5 classification system is Level 2. Cars with Level 2 automation can perform key driving tasks like steering, acceleration and braking to keep a set distance from the car ahead, center the car in its lane and stay at a certain speed. Yet they can’t handle every situation unmonitored and need the driver to pay attention to the road ahead in case they need to take over the wheel.
Therein lies the rub that a lot of folks have with ADAS: it’s easy to zone out if you’re not actively involved in a task and just watching it happen, and all too tempting to redirect the attention you’re not putting towards moving the wheels or pedals to your phone, Netflix or a dumb stunt video for TikTok. Even if you’re not focusing on irresponsible drivers abusing Autopilot for the clicks, IIHS’ prior research backs up the idea that drivers pay less attention to the road as they get used to these Level 2 systems.
The test took place on a chunk of Interstate 70 in Maryland with 31 drivers spread out over three test groups:
Every subject participating in the study drove the same 2019 Mercedes-Benz C300 equipped with a Level 2 ADAS system for an hour. To test out how much attention these drivers were paying, a second vehicle with the big pink teddy bear attached to its rear hatch then passed the C300 three times during its drive. The C300 drivers had ample time to spot the bear, as it remained in front of the Merc for roughly 30 seconds each time.
Researchers measured the drivers’ reactions during and after the drive, as the IIHS explains:
“Cameras inside the test vehicle recorded where the driver was looking as well as the view of the road through the windshield. After the trip, the drivers were asked whether they had seen anything odd about any vehicles they had encountered and, if they had, how many times they had seen it.”
The post-drive questions ensured that they weren’t leading off with questions about the bear. The drivers were asked about cars, landmarks and interesting sights, and had to bring up the bear themselves. Drivers were also asked about different landmarks to get their general road awareness down, but the bear was clearly a more interesting data point. Even people who knew I-70 couldn’t falsely remember a bear sighting based on prior trips.
Thus, a stuffed animal in a silly costume actually provided an objective data point when it came to drivers’ situational awareness. The results were actually pretty surprising, as they demonstrated that familiarity with the systems makes a huge difference.
This graph from the report notes how many times the study participants said they saw the bear after the drive, and how many in each group gave the correct answer.
“Our data suggest that Level 2 driving automation has the potential to improve a driver’s [situational awareness] once he or she is familiar with the technology, although it does not guarantee it,” the report reads.
Per the IIHS study’s results, nearly all of the experienced users of Level 2 systems were able to notice the bear during their drive, and more drivers in this group were able to correctly note the number of times the bear drove past them than anyone else. Meanwhile, over twice as many of the drivers who weren’t experienced with Level 2 automation but used it for the test didn’t remember the bear at all compared to either of the other groups in the test.
The IIHS’s in-car video also showed that the drivers who correctly identified how many times the bear passed them spent more time scanning the road ahead of them with their eyes as well as looking out of the car’s side windows. Those same drivers who scanned the road were also better able to recall landmarks from on the drive. Drivers who missed the bear tended to only focus straight ahead of their car. Drivers who missed every instance of the bear spent more time looking at various parts of the car’s dashboard than any other group.
Stills from camera footage of the test.
The IIHS was quick to note that even though experienced Level 2 automated driving system users had the best in this stuffed animal test, they did use a small sample size and previous studies have demonstrated that drivers who are more comfortable with automated driving systems are more likely to become complacent with the system’s ability to drive. Those studies showed that those drivers are more likely to mess with other items in the car, such as their phones or navigation systems, which has been blamed for causing crashes before. ADAS isn’t perfect right now, and can still make mistakes that you need to watch out for.
Clearly, we need further bear studies with a larger sample size to get a more definitive result. Maybe we can mix it up with a stuffed emu? Just a thought. No one would expect a giant emu.
You can read the full IIHS study here.
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