Skip to Content
Streetsblog California home
Log In
Autonomous/Automated Vehicles

Surprise! Even Partial Automation Is Encouraging Drivers Not to Pay Attention

3:55 PM PDT on June 3, 2020

Video footage of a Tesla driver testing out the survivability of nap driving.

Among the many dangers faced by people on streets in this nation today, distracted driving in automated vehicles has not been uppermost in people's minds. But research from U.C. Davis suggests policymakers should maybe pay a little more attention.

Scott Hardman, Senior Researcher at the Plug-In Hybrid & Electric Vehicle Research Center at ITS-Davis, found that people who drive Teslas that are equipped with the company's "Autopilot" software tend to drive more than they did before they had the software, which by itself is a problem in terms of energy use and increased congestion. Reduced stress from the feeling that they don't need to concentrate on driving makes drivers more willing to take long trips, and more willing to drive in heavy traffic.

That's because they are also more likely to be surfing the internet or sleeping while at the wheel, trusting the unregulated and largely untested software to handle the driving.

The Tesla with "Autopilot" function is considered a "partially automated vehicle." The software can control steering, acceleration, deceleration, and braking. However, the human driver is supposed to stay attentive, and maintain control of the vehicle.

The research raises questions about how driver behavior might change when more advanced automated vehicles become available. Researchers have warned that the adoption of fully automated vehicles is likely to lead to more travel and more congestion, and this study's results seem to back that up.

“The study highlights the fact that partially automated vehicles can cause and are already causing changes in how people travel—similar to the changes that modeling studies predict for fully automated vehicles," said Hardman in a press release. "But partially automated vehicles, unlike fully driverless cars, are already on the market and having an impact.”

Neither federal nor state policies currently address these safety issues directly, even though fully automatic vehicles are already being tested on California roads.

Hardman's report is available online, (a summary of findings is here). Also, U.C. Davis will host a webinar at 10 a.m. tomorrow to discuss the findings in more detail.

Researchers at U.C Davis have done a lot of thinking about automated vehicles and what they could mean for the future of transportation in California. Policy makers and rule setters should listen.

Stay in touch

Sign up for our free newsletter

More from Streetsblog California

California Has to Stop Building Freeways. Now.

"People aren't used to thinking of freeways as fossil fuel infrastructure, but they are." And once built, there's no going back, no making up for the extra driving by trying to convince people that a bus or train might be a better choice - we're stuck with it.

September 26, 2023

Metro September 2023 Board Committee Round-Up: C Line, 91 Freeway Widening, and More

Transit ridership and freeway funding are up. $14 million for MicroTransit was postponed. South Bay C Line extension draws both controversy and support. Law enforcement, Taylor Swift, bus lanes, and more!

September 26, 2023

Pols: Congress Must Bolster Sustainable Commutes to Reduce Carbon and Congestion

The feds should bolster sustainable commuting modes and transportation demand management strategies.

September 26, 2023

Tuesday’s Headlines

Newsom vetoes bill to require a human operator in driverless truck testing on public roads; Santa Crux goes all-on for hydrogen; Why CA is taking Big Oil to court; More

September 26, 2023
See all posts