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Featured image: The L2 Visualization screen on a stationary Kia Sorento Hybrid. Image by Jennifer Sensiba.

Autonomous Vehicles

How I Learned To Manage The Level 2 Attention Problem

There’s a weird paradox when it comes to SAE Level 2 driver assist systems.

On the one hand, studies show that people tend to quit paying attention when they see how well the system works. When they see adaptive cruise fail to rear-end people and they see lane centering keep the car within their lane for enough miles, trust is earned. Once that trust is earned, people start paying attention to other tasks instead of driving. Worse, people tend to fall asleep with systems like Autopilot on if there’s a boring section of road.

At the same time, though, the accident statistics aren’t piling up, and the accidents didn’t happen en masse even when the systems didn’t have driver monitoring.

The obvious answer to the paradox is that the systems are pretty good at not crashing, even when drivers are inattentive. Thus, even though many people are probably paying less attention than they should, the systems are good enough to keep the accidents rare (relative to the amount of driving going on).

Why We Must Still Pay Attention

The relative safety of these systems doesn’t mean there are zero accidents, as NHTSA has dozens of unresolved investigations into accidents involving driver assistance systems (and several of them don’t involve Tesla vehicles). Some of these accident investigations have been resolved, and the system wasn’t found to be at fault. However, many have not been resolved, and may never be fully understood due to the nature of the crash. We also don’t know how many crashes occur with these systems when the driver doesn’t attempt to blame Autopilot or similar systems, and thus they don’t make it into any federal investigation.

Anyone who has gotten wheel time in using a Level 2 system knows that they aren’t perfect. Some of them jerk to the right or left when you pass an exit, with the vehicle attempting to lane center as the lane line leaving the highway gets further apart from the one that follows the highway. Sometimes they don’t see an obstacle they were designed to stop for. For some brands, they aren’t good at driving in traffic jams unless you put them on the longest follow settings.

Were something to happen while these assist features is on, liability for the accident still rests with the driver, so we know we have to pay attention and be ready to keep the vehicle on course when these errors occur.

My Unscientific (But Hopefully Informative) Methodology

One of the things I set out to do on my first road trip for the Untold EV & Cleantech Stories project was to get some good wheel time with a Level 2 system. I’ve spent several hours with Tesla’s Autopilot, so I know what that’s like, but I haven’t tested the systems offered by other manufacturers until this trip. Kia came through for me, and I got to put its system to the test for several thousand miles in the Sorento Hybrid.

Because I’m but one driver driving one vehicle, I can’t really call what I did on this trip a study. I can, however share what my anecdotal experiences were to start off a bigger conversation about how drivers keep themselves mentally engaged when using Level 2 assist systems.

Kia’s L2 driver assist controls. One button activates ACC, another activates lane centering, and another cycles through follow distances. Photo by Jennifer Sensiba.

Before I go on to my experiences, I want to share a bit about the system I was using for those unfamiliar with Kia’s driver assist features. The Sorento Hybrid has adaptive cruise control with four distance settings and lane centering assist. Each feature can be turned on and off using independent wheel buttons. Combined, they behave pretty similarly to Tesla’s lowest Autopilot package. It stays in its lane and keeps up a steady speed unless something is in its way.

Kia’s system doesn’t seem to have a driver monitoring camera. Instead, it analyzes driver inputs like steering and pedal use to determine whether a driver is getting inattentive. With the L2 system fully engaged (ACC+Steering), it seems to depend a lot on sensing steering wheel torque like Tesla’s vehicles do. Just hanging a hand on the wheel and wiggling it a bit here and there was enough to keep it satisfied.

With my previous Autopilot experience and the easy to access controls for the system, I jumped right in and started using it on the highway, and used the system a lot for over 2,000 miles.

What I Learned

For the first several hundred miles, the novelty of the system and the novelty of the terrain I was on kept me attentive all by itself. These first couple of drives were relatively short, and I only used the system in short bursts between small towns on highways not built to Interstate standards.

Once I got back into the desert and back onto I-40 for a long haul almost completely across the continent, that’s when things changed. I found that after a while, my attention started to be harder and harder to keep up. When I started to actually feel drowsy, like I might actually fall asleep at the wheel, I went ahead and turned the system off and started looking for an exit to get off at to take a break and have some caffeine.

What surprised me, though, was how my mind suddenly woke back up when I started controlling the car again. When I took back the task of steering and controlling the digital go pedal, my brain had something to do and became alert again. I didn’t even have to stop, and didn’t feel sleepy at all for the next couple of hours manually driving.

Later in the day, I put the system on again, and after about an hour started to feel sleepy again. This time, I turned off just the autosteering and left the adaptive cruise control on. Just like before, my brain woke right back up and I didn’t feel drowsy for a while.

The big takeaway: the act of steering keeps us awake. Not steering can make us sleepy and inattentive in ways that cruise control doesn’t.

My Solution: Steering WITH the Car

Later that night, I figured out how to blend my driving with that of the lane centering system to keep attentiveness up while taking advantage of lane centering. This time, when I started to feel drowsy, I simply put my hands on the wheel and started driving it myself, but I left the lane centering feature on. That way, my brain was calculating all of the steering and arm motions, while the car was still doing most of the work.

This blended method, where both the car and I were driving simultaneously, kept me feeling awake and also kept me safer because the vehicle was ready to keep me centered if I did have a momentary lapse of attention. Having that backup allowed me to feel a little more relaxed and further my anticipatory focus toward future curves, places where police might hide, etc.

Later in the trip, I noticed several times where the system lost track of lane lines for a few seconds, and I didn’t immediately notice because I was still steering. It was only after a few seconds that I felt the L2 system come alive again and start pulling the wheel a bit.

Don’t Pretend Inattentive Level 2 Use Doesn’t Happen

On a hilly stretch of Interstate in Tennessee, I saw a Tesla “stuck” behind a semi-truck going uphill. When several cars passed and the left lane was open for a pass, the car didn’t try to go around. As we approached and passed them, I looked over and saw the driver’s hand resting on the bottom of the wheel, and the guy looked like he was almost asleep. Even everyone in our car staring at him didn’t get his attention.

Apparently, sometime back the driver had become inattentive and TACC matched his speed with that of the semi-truck. From then on, he was basically riding in an automated trailer being “pulled” by the truck. As I went on, I noticed several more Teslas perfectly following a slow truck in the same manner. Anyone paying attention would have gone around the truck, but people sleeping or driving in zombie mode just don’t do that.

Whether we want to admit it or not, there are a lot of inattentive drivers today using Level 2 technology. The maturity of the technology, combined with some dumb luck, keeps nearly all of these people from getting hurt. Driver monitoring can see if you’re looking elsewhere, using a phone, or actually are falling asleep, but they can’t see that time when you’re still looking ahead with eyes glazing over until you actually get to the point where it affects your eyelids.

One can technically be awake and have a hand resting on the wheel, but not actually be ready to respond quickly.

I’m not saying “Tesla bad” or anything like that, because a growing number of manufacturers are selling cars with L2 systems. What I am saying is that we need to have more of a conversation about this issue, and make it a norm in the CleanTech community to stay engaged and alert when using these systems.

Featured image: The L2 Visualization screen on a stationary Kia Sorento Hybrid. Image by Jennifer Sensiba.

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Written By

Jennifer Sensiba is a long time efficient vehicle enthusiast, writer, and photographer. She grew up around a transmission shop, and has been experimenting with vehicle efficiency since she was 16 and drove a Pontiac Fiero. She likes to explore the Southwest US with her partner, kids, and animals. Follow her on Twitter for her latest articles and other random things:


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