Automotive > In-Vehicle UX Blog

Mixed Messages on Safety from State Farm

by Roger Lanctot | Jul 23, 2019

The auto insurance industry in the U.S. has a tortured relationship with car makers and the automotive industry. Nothing has been more trying for this relationship than the emergence of automated driving and semi-autonomous advanced driving assistance features - collectively known as ADAS.

Familiar ADAS functions include lane keeping assistance, automatic emergency braking, adaptive cruise control and blind spot detection. These functions are also known as active safety - as they are designed to actively take over driving functions in order to avoid collisions. This active designation is in contrast to "passive" safety systems such as seatbelts and airbags which are intended to protect drivers in the event of a crash.

The automotive industry has more or less exhausted the range of available options on the passive safety side of the equation. Active safety systems are seen as the new frontier for reducing the number of crashes by targeting specific driver behavior vulnerabilities such as lane deviations, low-speed crashes and blind-spot errors.

Consumers are keenly interested in safety, but safety does come at a price, so bringing these systems to a stage of wider adoption has required regulatory mandates in some instances. It might be helpful if market forces - in the form of insurance discounts - were also available to buyers of cars equipped with these systems. Sadly, this is almost universally not the case in the U.S. - with a slightly better outlook for such discounts in Europe.

The insurance industry has previously used research from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) to question the efficacy of lane departure warning and blind-spot detection for reducing claims. IIHS at various times shown a lack of insurance claims reductions from implementation of these ADAS features or has looked closely at cars being serviced at dealerships to note where and how frequently consumers have disabled these functions - presumably after being vexed by annoying lane-drifting warnings.

Now, insurer State Farm has released research showing that consumers report heightened levels of distracted driving (as evidenced by self-reported use of smartphone applications while driving) in connection with the availability and, presumably, use of ADAS systems such as lane keeping and adaptive cruise control. Once again, the insurance industry appears to be standing in the path of more rapid adoption of safety systems rather than embracing, facilitating and championing their development and introduction.

It is important to bear in mind that State Farm has a more than casual connection with the automotive industry. State Farm safety engineers routinely advise car makers on the placement of vehicle batteries, sensors and other gear in the interest of mitigating the cost of claims and, presumably, preserving lives. One wonders what State Farm is advising as regards lane keeping technology and adaptive cruise control.

The State Farm study raises legitimate concerns. The problem lies in the proposed solution: more and/or better consumer education. What is missing is more affirmative statement of support for these systems and specific guidance for the industry. It is pretty clear that the over-arching message to be taken from the results of the study is that safety systems are facilitating unsafe driving.

There is no question that human beings - over the long run - are likely to become more reliant on built-in vehicle safety systems. That doesn't mean that these systems ought not to be deployed - especially when they offer the prospect of saving lives and reducing crashes.

What is most blatantly absent from State Farm's assessment is a recognition of the proliferation of driver monitoring systems - including systems capable of directly observing drivers - intended to ensure drivers are focused on the driving task. Euro NCAP is leading the charge for the implementation of driver monitoring systems on new type approved cars within a few years. Other regions are likely to follow.

Driver monitoring of this sort can be seen in General Motors' introduction of Super Cruise in select Cadillacs. Cadillac drivers using Super Cruise can engage automated driving on designated highways as long as the driver is paying attention.

State Farm's failure to view its study results in this context conveys the bizarre message that active safety systems encourage bad driving behavior. Watching the latest new car advertisements showing cars avoiding collisions it is clear that the messaging from the industry is that drivers need to continue to pay attention. But if we can't count on good driver behavior, it's good to know that driver monitoring systems will soon arrive to enforce it.

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