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NASA Lab Studies How Automated Systems Could Make Drivers More Drowsy

self driving cars make drivers drowsy

A new study has cast doubts over the potential effectiveness of self-driving car systems in reducing drowsy driving accidents. Drowsy driving is undoubtedly a factor in hundreds if not thousands of car crashes yearly in the United States, causing serious injuries and deaths.

While many think self-driving cars could fix this problem, a new study conducted by the Fatigue Countermeasures Lab at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California suggests that taking on a passive role can leave drivers more susceptible to sleepiness, especially when sleep-deprived.

What the Study Shows

As part of this study, researchers tried to understand how humans interact with autonomous systems such as those used in aircraft and spaceflight systems. The findings will contribute to the agency’s research on safely introducing automation in aviation. They also suggest that drowsy drivers may be an important consideration for safely introducing self-driving car features.

The researchers looked at whether people on their ordinary sleep schedules would show more sleepiness supervising a self-driving vehicle compared to manually controlled driving. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that many people across the country don’t get sufficient sleep and most of us actually get fewer than the seven to eight hours of sleep recommended each night.

The research results showed that when supervising, rather than actively driving a vehicle, participants reported feeling sleepier and showed increased signs of nodding off. They also showed slower reaction times compared to when they were actively driving the car. Researchers found that the more sleep-deprived a person was, the stronger these effects appeared to be. Researchers concluded that when people don’t get enough sleep, they are still vulnerable to accidents – regardless of automated or semi-automated features in the vehicle.

Implications for Roadway Safety

This study shows how drivers could be lulled into a sense of false security by semi-automated features such as Tesla’s Autopilot. While the automaker says drivers should keep their hands on the steering wheel at all times and be ready to take over at a moment’s notice even when Autopilot is engaged, we’ve seen many examples of drivers who do tend to fall asleep and let the vehicle take over. We’ve particularly seen disturbing examples (Youtube videos) of drivers on Southern California freeways who let Autopilot do the driving and doze off.

It is important to remember that driving while drowsy amounts to negligence. If you cause a car accident while exhausted and sleepy, you could still be held financially liable for the injuries and losses you cause.


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California Personal Injury Blog