Now you see him, now you don’t: bear hunting on the open road


Anyone who saw the 2002 hit movie Minority Report, starring Tom Cruise, will remember being dazzled by the automobiles driving without any human interaction. Nearly 20 years later, we are not quite yet riding our vehicle sitting back taking in the scenery but we are getting there. Some car makers are gearing up to roll out level-3 vehicles, capable of driving themselves but still needing a human driver behind the wheel to interfere when necessary. That’s just two steps away from full automation!

Today, most new cars fall in the level-2 (partial autonomy) category, with adaptive cruise control and lane keep assist but no situational awareness whatsoever, which is where the human comes in. The Insurance Institute of Highway Safety in the USA published the results of a study they performed to determine whether or not drivers are paying attention to their surroundings.

The first group of participants had no experience with level-2 driving and drove their car manually. The second equally inexperienced group took to the road using the level-2 system. The third group consisted of drivers familiar with partial automation. At some point during the drive all cars were overtaken by another vehicle with a huge teddy bear strapped to the boot.

As it turned out, most of the participants who spotted the bear were experienced level-2 users, with the group that drove manually coming in second. Those less likely to observe the cuddly toy were the drivers using the level-2 system for the first time. This suggests that partial automation allows drivers to be aware of their surroundings and not just lie down on the job.