Automotive Research

AAA testing finds driver monitoring systems come up short

As vehicles become more automated, drivers are increasingly getting the false sense that a vehicle can drive itself.

Driver monitoring systems are designed to prevent the deadly consequences of a distracted driver. New real-world testing by AAA has found that systems using a driver-facing camera are best at keeping motorists focused on the road. But the tech isn't foolproof, and a driver determined to cheat the system can defeat it. Which systems work best, and how should drivers use them?

Why do these cars have driver monitoring systems?

Since the introduction of active driving assistance systems (ADAS), there have been many instances of drivers misusing them by watching videos, working, sleeping, or even climbing into the back seat. Without monitoring, this behavior goes undetected and, in some cases, results in deadly crashes.

ADAS is not self-driving and requires driver attention. However, even when drivers do intend to focus, ADAS can reduce how much input is needed, making it easier to get distracted. 

To prevent this, many newer vehicles monitor drivers by measuring steering wheel movements. Some also use a camera-based system that watches drivers' faces. When a driver is no longer actively engaged, the systems alert them to refocus on the road.

AAA's test drivers simulated distracted driving, employing a number of strategies to see whether driver monitoring systems could be fooled.

What did AAA's research find?

Vehicles with camera-based driver monitoring systems were significantly better at preventing each type of tested distraction scenario, issuing alerts faster and more persistently than a steering wheel system, no matter the external lighting conditions. On average, the percent of time test drivers were forced to focus on driving was 5 times greater when facing a camera than with steering wheel input.

Both driver monitoring types were prone to being intentionally fooled, although those using a camera were harder to trick. AAA test drivers attempted to stymie monitoring system alerts with periodic head or eye movement and manipulating the steering wheel.

  • Camera-based systems alerted disengaged drivers 50 seconds sooner and were more persistent than those detecting steering wheel movement when the driver was looking down with head facing forward, hands off the wheel.
  • Camera-based systems alerted disengaged drivers 51 seconds sooner compared to steering wheel movement when the driver was facing away from the road, looking at the center console, with hands off the wheel.
  • Steering wheel monitoring required only minimal input to prevent system alerts, allowing up to 5 minutes and 39 seconds of continuous distraction (at 65 mph, equivalent to over 6 miles of disengaged driving) during a 10-minute test drive. 
  • In comparison, camera-based systems allowed 2 minutes and 15 seconds of distraction during the 10-minute test drive.

Crucially, even after issuing multiple warnings, all the systems tested failed to disable the semi-autonomous features and force the driver to take the wheel and pay attention.

What should drivers do?

Car shoppers should seek vehicles equipped with camera monitoring systems over those that only monitor the steering wheel. Drivers should never rely on even the most sophisticated active driving assistance-equipped vehicles to drive themselves. Drivers must be responsible for taking the time to understand the technology in their vehicles. New features, functions, and limitations should be understood before the systems are engaged.

To reduce misuse or overconfidence in the capabilities of active driving assistance systems, AAA recommends that owners follow this PLAN:

  • Purpose – Learn the purpose of active driving technology by reading the vehicle’s owner’s manual and visiting the manufacturer’s website.
  • Limitations – Understand what the technology cannot do; don't make assumptions about automation. An active driving system should not be confused with a self-driving one.
  • Allow time for acclimation – Allow time for safe on-road familiarization, so drivers know exactly how this technology works in real driving situations.
  • Never rely on it – Do not rely on this technology; instead, act as if the vehicle doesn't have it, with the driver always prepared to retake control if needed.

What should manufacturers do?

AAA recommends that automakers opt for camera-based driver monitoring systems over steering wheel monitoring. Even with cameras, however, more refinement is required to prevent driver distraction and misuse. Before releasing this report, AAA met with automakers to provide insight from the testing experience and specific recommendations for improvement.

See the full report

Get all the details with the full 27-page report, including individual vehicle results.

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