I Spy with My Little Eye…a Giant Pink Teddy Bear on a Car???

Teddy bear strapped to back of car
Researchers test drivers' situational awareness by seeing who notices the teddy bear.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has come up with an innovative way to test drivers’ situational awareness while driving partially automated vehicles: strap a giant pink teddy bear to the back of a test vehicle and see who notices! Westat researchers supported the study, which included complex choreography, a test vehicle loaded with cameras, and high-tech data collection.

The test helped measure situational awareness of 3 groups of drivers who drove the test vehicle that was equipped with a Level 2 system (a partially automated driver assistance system). Two groups were unfamiliar with using Level 2 systems in general, and 1 of them drove with the test vehicle’s system on and the other drove with the system off. A 3rd group of experienced users of Level 2 systems drove with the test vehicle’s system on.

Researchers found that the more than twice as many unfamiliar drivers with the Level 2 system turned on failed to recall the teddy bear compared to the other 2 groups. Almost all of the familiar drivers recalled the bear and also more of them correctly recalled how many times they had seen it compared to the other 2 groups. Those with better recall of the bear also tended to look around the roadway more when the bear was present.

“The researchers observed clear differences in how successfully the 3 groups of drivers took note of the hard-to-miss bear,” noted IIHS, “suggesting that the method effectively provided an objective measure of situational awareness.”

Driving automation, even partial, has the potential to improve drivers’ safety. But, other studies have shown that as drivers become familiar with these systems, they also become more likely to be distracted with other activities, such as texting, when using the driving automation. To take advantage of the effect of familiarity and improve drivers’ situational awareness of the road, Level 2 systems need to be designed in ways that keep drivers engaged in driving.

“On-road testing is a critical step in understanding how drivers interact with partially automated vehicles and how these interactions impact the drivers’ situational awareness,” says Westat’s Doreen De Leonardis, Ph.D. “This research demonstrates an effective way to measure it. Findings from this study can help to inform manufacturer decisions when designing safer vehicles.”

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