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U study gathering data on how well drivers understand advanced features.

By Brooke Adams, communications specialist, University Marketing & Communications

Graduate student Kelly Funkhouser and her team of researchers are curious about what you think — and do — when you get behind the wheel of your vehicle.

For the past three years Funkhouser has been studying how drivers interact with the growing number of features that make cars smarter, from technologies that monitor traffic to those that provide braking and keep a vehicle centered in a lane. These features are a part of Advanced Driver Assistance Systems and are a prelude to the fully autonomous vehicle that some predict will be on the road within a decade.

Funkhouser is still gathering data (and you can help) but early results from her current study show confusion among drivers about what these features do and how to use them.

“There are safety implications of realigning these perceptions and we are attempting to propose a solution for that problem,” said Funkhouser, who studies cognition and neural science in the Department of Psychology’s Human Factors Lab.

Funkhouser recently presented early findings from her current study, with research assistant Elise Tanner and advisor Frank Drews, at the Automated Vehicle Symposium.

The study looks at features in a range of vehicle models. Some of the words used to describe these features have established meanings, such as automatic, auto, active, assist, aid, dynamic and pilot. If the performance of these features doesn’t align with the driver’s expectations, their vehicle may act in unsafe and unpredictable ways.

Some features require a driver to actively turn them on to control one or more aspects of driving; others run automatically in the background and function as needed, while some features provide alerts or warnings.

Here’s the problem: At present, there is no consistency when it comes to what terms manufacturers use to describe these features or how they outline use in owner’s manuals. That opens the possibility the features will be misunderstood or, worse, misused.

Take cruise control. Here are some of the terms the manufacturers use to describe a high-tech cruise control system: “adaptive cruise control,” “dynamic radar cruise control,” “distance pilot DISTRONIC” and “traffic aware cruise control.” The capabilities and limitations of the features also tend to vary.

When different companies use the word “active” to mean everything from “performs an action autonomously” to “just provides an alert” it’s no wonder drivers can get confused. This confusion can have potentially dangerous consequences on the road, Funkhouser said.

The word “active” or “pilot assist,” for instance, understandably may be interpreted by some drivers as a feature the vehicle does automatically without intervention, when in actuality it is simply an alert. Your Audi may do one thing to aid proper lane navigation while your partner’s Subaru does another.

“Everyone wants to be unique and create a catch-phrase for something,” Funkhouser said. “This misalignment is where the problem happens. The mismatch between what a consumer thinks it will do and what it actually does is where a feature becomes dangerous on the road.”

Drivers are not and should not be required to have specialized training in the appropriate use of Advanced Driver Assistance Systems, according to Funkhouser and her team, but many features are currently far from intuitive.

Funkhouser said the Society for Automotive Engineering is beginning to create standards to govern naming and descriptions of Advanced Driver Assistance Systems. Results of her study may help identify where the problems are and how to better connect with drivers’ understandings of their vehicle features.

She and her co-researchers have created an online survey that takes about 15 minutes to complete; so far, about 150 people have taken it. More participants are needed to take the survey, which is available here.

The misalignment problem is common with new technologies; convergence of terms and functions happens over time, Funkhouser said.

“We are in the early stages,” she said, “but figuring this out now rather than waiting for convergence is especially important since smart cars are on the road now.”