Self-Driving Cars: Do They Protect or Distract Older Drivers?

| October 05, 2012

Chances are the car you just bought has a host of high-tech features designed to keep you from falling asleep at the wheel, backing into a neighbor’s bicycle or veering out of your lane. But researchers at the University of Iowa are wondering if that technology might distract, rather than protect, older drivers.

California Governor Jerry Brown (D) made history in late September 2012 when he signed a law allowing Google to test its new self-driving car on the state’s public roads.

The Google car is the latest in a long line of technology innovations designed to make driving safer and to keep older drivers on the road for longer. But researchers at the University of Iowa (UI) are wondering whether some vehicle safety technologies may be distracting older drivers, rather than making them safer. 

Self-Driving Car: Science Fiction or Reality?

The Google car is actually a modified Toyota Prius equipped with a sophisticated computer that can detect speed, direction, distance, weather conditions, traffic and road signals and signs.

While not yet perfect, the technology was good enough to allow the director of a center for the blind to pilot the vehicle safely down a California city street for the PBS News Hour. Google expects that its product will be available for purchase within 5 years.

Self-driving cars may seem closer to science fiction than reality for most Americans. But some less dramatic driver-assistance technologies are already becoming standard features on American cars. According to The Hartford insurance company and CAST Member the MIT AgeLab, some of the most successful technologies include:

  • Smart headlights that improve night vision by automatically adjusting the range and intensity of light.
  • Emergency response systems that offer assistance to drivers experiencing medical emergencies or collisions. 
  • Reverse monitoring systems that help drivers back up safely.
  • Warning systems that alert drivers to objects in their blind spots. 
  • Lane departure warnings that alert drivers if their vehicles stray on the highway. 
  • Stability controls that help vehicles recover when a curve or bad weather throws them off course.
  • Assistive parking systems that enable vehicles to park on their own or signal the distance to nearby objects.
  • Voice-activated systems that allow drivers to use voice commands to access car features.
  • Crash mitigation systems that detect when a vehicle may be in danger of a collision. These systems can also take steps to minimize crash-related injuries. 
  • Drowsy driver alerts that monitor whether drivers are focusing their attention on the road. 

Safety Measure or Distraction?

While drivers and insurance companies laud the latest driving-assistance systems, researchers at the UI Aging Minds and Brain Initiative will spend the next 3 years trying to determine if those systems actually distract older drivers more than they help them.

Using funds from the Toyota Collaborative Safety Research Center, the researchers will test and compare how older and younger drivers respond to a variety of vehicle safety technologies. They will then disseminate their data to help the auto industry improve those technologies.

UI Professor Matthew Rizzo says that some driver-assistance systems may require drivers to shift their focus too quickly. That shift could make it difficult for the driver to react quickly if something unexpected happens on the road immediately after an alert sounds.

"Our hope is that when challenges of the elderly are better understood, better systems can be built that help them negotiate difficult driving tasks,” says Nazan Aksan, a UI associate research scientist.