All we want for Christmas are smart drivers

smart car

In the crazy lead-up to Christmas, our attention turns to gifts, Summer holidays and road trips. Everyone is on the road and the potential for accidents is high. Is it possible smart cars are making our driving increasingly dumb? Perhaps it’s time to encourage smart driving – even if you own a “dumb” car.

Smart car/dumb driving

Daimler cleverly hijacked the term “smart cars” when it introduced and patented the compact Smart car. A generic smart car is one that is kitted out with sophisticated electronics and, to varying degrees, can do the driving.

Today all new cars have some degree of “smarts”. The technical term for this is advanced driver assistance systems, or ADAS. These can include lane keeping, blind spot monitoring or automatic emergency braking. But having a smart car is causing a few problems. Drivers misunderstand the difference between assistance and autonomy. The vital word is “assistance”.

Human drivers have got used to dealing with the average “dumb” car. They know it has a steering wheel, brakes, dashboard, gears, accelerator pedal etc. But when faced with ADAS features, most of us have no clue. It’s all very well to understand logically how they work but, in a crisis, most of us would revert to the old ways. Meanwhile, these assistance features are confusingly different in every car and have various names.

State Farm (US) research found drivers in smart cars were taking more risks behind the wheel, such as texting, using apps, manually entering phone numbers, holding the phone while talking, or even using video chat. They were taking more risks in smart cars than other drivers in dumb cars:

  • 62% of drivers with adaptive cruise control (49% without it) read or send texts while driving
  • 62% of drivers with lane-keeping assist (51% without it) read or send texts while driving.

As has noted before, many people think driverless vehicles are already on the market, even though most carmakers now admit they are a long way off. Worse, partially autonomous cars are potentially the most dangerous because the driver does not really know who is doing the driving and when.

Many motorists making a long trip this Christmas don’t fully understand what their smart cars can and can’t do. Yet in the old days of dumb cars, everyone had to know.

Dumb car/smart driving

It takes around 1,500 to 2,500 cognitive skills to drive an old fashioned, manual car. It also takes months or years to fully develop these skills to be able to handle the unexpected. Humans are so skilled at driving that very few of the billions of trips made in a year, in all weathers, on all roads, result in accidents. To replicate this skill in an autonomous car may even be impossible.

The upshot is we learned to be smart, because the car itself could not do anything.

Do we need to put more focus on driving skills to improve road safety? Many experts have called for harder, more comprehensive driver training in Australia. Some point to Germany as a good example of rigorous training – learners even have to be able to change a tyre. It makes sense to focus on training safe drivers as well as safer roads or smarter cars.

Just as some people might prefer a mobile phone with very few features – the ability to make calls and send texts or photos – some people might prefer a car with fewer features. It may be a dumb car, but it could make the driving smarter.

Drive smartly this Summer, whatever you drive.

Corrina Baird

Writer and expert

Corrina used to lend her car to her kids and discovered first hand what Ls, Ps and demerits mean for greenslips. After 20 years of writing and research in financial services, she’s an expert in the NSW CTP scheme. Read more about Corrina

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