As the popularity of advanced driver-assistance systems continues to grow, there is still a lot that we don’t know about how they affect driver behavior. And despite what a particularly fervent group of EV fans might tell you, these systems are quite a ways off from “full self-driving” capabilities. ADAS software is measured on a scale from zero to five, with zero representing no assistance, with five being reserved for fully autonomous vehicles. The highest level on offer for sale today is classified as L2 autonomy, with Waymo and others testing L3 autonomy under tight scrutiny. In order to test how these L2 ADAS programs function in the real world, the IIHS has just completed a new study. This “pink teddy bear” test serves up some rather concerning answers.
The pink teddy bear test was designed to test how aware drivers are when they are behind the wheel of a vehicle using ADAS software. As the name suggests, the test involved strapping a giant pink teddy bear to the back of a test vehicle, and monitoring various drivers using ADAS tech to test their level of focus behind the wheel. The test groups involved people who regularly use advanced driver-assistance systems, those who are unfamiliar with them, and a group who abstained from using them during the test. All participants drove a 2019 Mercedes-Benz C300 down a section of Maryland’s I-70 freeway.
“There are a number of laboratory methods for measuring situational awareness, but they don’t work so well on the road,” IIHS Research Scientist Alexandra Mueller said. “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.”
The test studied 31 drivers as they traversed I-70 for about an hour. During this time, the teddy bear-equipped IIHS vehicle would pass the drivers at three different intervals, for 30 seconds at a time. The tester then asked participants if they noticed anything unusual about any of the cars on the road, which led to some less than confidence-inspiring answers.
According to the results, more than twice as many inexperienced ADAS users failed to recall seeing the bear when compared to the other groups. Interesting enough however, almost all of the frequent users of L2 autonomy systems were not only able to identify the bear’s presence, but they also recalled the number of interactions at a higher rate than either of the other groups.
That said, there are a few things to note about the study. The cars were loaded up with video equipment in order to study the drivers view of the road, as well as how they behaved behind the wheel. The results showed that those who were able to accurately identify the bear spent more time actually looking around and using their mirrors, just as your driving instructor once drilled into your head. Drivers who missed the bear spent far more time simply looking straight ahead during the test run. Now it is quite possible that the new ADAS software users had their eyes glued forwards because they were uncomfortable or untrusting of the software’s ability to prevent an incident. Regular users would not share this hesitancy.
Furthermore, the presence of cameras inside the vehicle could also have mitigated some of the bad behavior that takes place when these systems are used. Research has proven that it is harder for people to focus on driving when they aren’t actually the ones putting inputs into the car, leading to cell phone usage and other dangerous activities. Considering these folks were driving an expensive SUV that didn’t belong to them, we’re sure they were all on their best behavior.
So while the study highlights that advanced driver-assistance systems can improve driver situational awareness when used by a person experienced with L2 autonomy, they clearly cause issues for those new to the tech. Furthermore, the IIHS recognizes that this was just a small test, and that more research needs to be done. Either way, it’s probably best to avoid folks who are driving without their hands on temp tags, just to be safe.