Is our dependence on Driver Assist Technology creating worse drivers?

Vehicles can now brake for us, control our speed and placement on the road and automatically adjust our steering to keep us tracking forward.

  • blind spot monitoring

I love to drive. There’s nothing better than feeling the road feedback through the steering wheel or hearing the tires squeal as you push them to the limits of adhesion. If I had the choice, I would choose analog over digital every day of the week!

By contrast, modern vehicles place heavy reliance on technological innovations to seemingly create the easiest and safest driving conditions in history. But are these breakthroughs actually producing less skilled and potentially absent minded drivers?

Automotive manufacturers have, throughout history, attempted to improve the driving dynamics of the vehicles they sell by way of pushing technology to its limits. Development of such systems like power steering, anti-lock brakes (ABS), traction and stability controls (TC, SC) and four-wheel drive have helped in the area of safety and have no doubt saved countless lives. These systems were developed to make driving easier, safer and more enjoyable.

Almost non-existent are the days where you slide through a stop sign in the middle of winter or spin your drive wheels in the rain as you accelerate. Modern developments such as Lane Departure Assist, Automatic Cruise Control and Blind Spot Monitoring (to name a few)—were perhaps meant to help—but are they actually contributing to the complacency of the driver? One example is blind spot monitoring. We wait for a little orange light next to our side view mirrors to turn off and we proceed to change lanes; most times without even checking the mirror or rotating our heads to look over our shoulders. I (although I hate to admit it) have been guilty of this a few times.

Vehicles can now brake for us, control our speed and placement on the road and automatically adjust our steering to keep us tracking forward. Though these systems are sold to consumers as safety or “luxury” equipment, the argument can be made that they create a sense of reliance that in turn makes drivers less safe. These are unlike “hidden” systems such as stability control and anti-lock brakes—which operate continuously without the driver’s awareness or input. Is it possible that some of these systems were developed as a by-product of the issues others created?

Navigation systems, rear view cameras and onboard WIFI are just a few reasons why drivers no longer need to look out their windows. Following route guidance, parking your car or checking email has now placed monumental faith in the driver assists outfitted to your vehicle. I recently had my wife’s vehicle in at the dealership for an oil change and watched the technician drive—in reverse—down by the side of the building using only the rear view camera as guidance. Cameras are great, but you still need to look out the rear window!

driver technology

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While the functionality of this technology is almost perfect, the real issue is, how do you get drivers to use it as a tool rather than a crutch? Perhaps one solution is on-going driver education or at the very least, revising the driver licensing process to include this technology as part of driver’s education.

My genuine concern is that while having these technologies may help, they are making the driver adapt to driving with them, thus reducing or eroding their confidence without them. With increased use, the trust in skill and judgment goes out the window. Reliance on this technology is a by-product of the reassurance it offers, and this can be addictive. As these systems improve, driver confidence in them will also increase causing the driver—as a consequence—to become more relaxed behind the wheel. I say consequence because as we become more relaxed, we become less attentive.

Don’t misunderstand my view. I think that this modern technology is useful and of great significance, but I also believe that having an attentive and focused driver is just as important. As someone who loves to drive and will likely never fully accept all the driver aids available, it’s hard to conclude where the future of drivers and driving will be. Perhaps we need to take a step back and re-evaluate what it means to drive. Or, (can’t believe I’m writing this) maybe autonomous vehicles are the solution.

Either way, my hope is that automotive manufacturers come to one conclusion: That cars need drivers.

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