The rise of machines …

The rise of machines …

… and the fall in the skills to operate them. As motor vehicles become more automated, there is a risk of drivers becoming overly complacent that the vehicle will take care of everything on their behalf. And, as younger generations of drivers take to the roads, they might eventually lack the skills that experienced drivers usually gain over time.

There has been much hype recently about automated vehicles undergoing ever-increasing advances in development. Indeed, you would have read in the July edition of FOCUS that the very first licensed autonomous truck has hit the road in North America.

Daimler’s head of truck product engineering said, at the launch of his new Freightliner Inspiration Truck, that its autonomous drive was never designed to replace the driver. It’s there to make his job easier; allowing him more time to tend to administrative tasks from his mobile office and reducing fatigue levels.

Recently I’ve also been lucky enough to have sampled a number of vehicles that boast some rather advanced radar- and camera-guided safety features. These include technology such as radar-guided cruise control that could bring the car to a complete stop and then speed it up again in accordance with traffic conditions ahead.

A few have featured sophisticated self-parking capability, where they will parallel or reverse park themselves, and then pull out again when you’re ready to leave. One particular car will even steer itself back into its lane should the driver let it wander too far over the dividing line, and recognise signs on the side of the road.

The most amazing piece of news is that these are all everyday cars that many of our readers could afford to buy. Of course, the multi-million rand “luxobarges” continue to introduce this sort of technology at an increasing rate, as different manufacturers battle it out for tech supremacy.

The worry is that – while this technology is, indeed, impressive and may, in some cases, be life saving – it does bring about the possibility of motorists becoming exceptionally lazy; relying too much on the machine and landing themselves in trouble.

Those among us who have been driving for a decade or more might be able to resist this, but what about the new generation of drivers?

At the recent Southern African Transport Conference I heard a talk about the need to develop a hazard perception test for novice drivers.

I began my driving career at the point where conventional cruise-control systems were long established and electronic safety aids, like anti-lock brakes and traction/stability control, were beginning to make an appearance in almost all vehicles in most showrooms (my first seven years of driving saw me learning the basics in cars that were equipped with none of these, mind you).

Nonetheless, as Karien Venter, researcher at the Centre for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) Built Environment, waxed lyrical about her research, I couldn’t help remember myself as an 18-year-old novice driver and think: “I can’t believe I actually did these things and had that attitude”.

Venter began by quoting international research, which states that novice drivers lack the ability to perceive threats in their driving environment. Their perception of risk and situational awareness takes time to develop, as does their ability to coordinate these abilities with that of physically driving a vehicle.

This, it was suggested, could be down to the fact that a person’s brain is not yet fully developed by the time he or she takes the wheel. Novice drivers need to learn to control their vehicle, react to different road characteristics and conditions and drive safely.

Making this more difficult is the fact that the personalities, as well as social and peer influences, of younger drivers manipulate their behaviour and ability to perceive risk.

Novice drivers, therefore, tend to be more aggressive and reckless and take more risks.

This is not a good thing when they are already more prone to distraction, as well as the loads placed on a driver by fatigue and monotonous roads …

Furthermore, the novice driver will tend to increase speed in complex road situations, while the experienced driver will reduce speed.

Unfortunately, Venter says that there is still a lack of research into the problem. This means the development of a hazard perception test (and its inclusion in the process of acquiring a learner’s licence) might be some way off.

The younger generations of drivers might not be too perturbed. They’d probably be happy to let the automated technology (that is filtering into even the more basic vehicles on the road), help them along – just as we’ve become accustomed to allowing modern technology to do in so many other aspects of our lives.

As a relatively young driver myself, and someone with a deep passion for road safety and the need to increase the skills of drivers, I tend to find that more worrying than comforting.

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