When “Driver Assistance” Doesn’t Work

Almost every new car comes standard with various driver “assistance” technology such as Brake Assist, Lane Keep Assist, and Park Assist. New forms of “assistance” propagate with each new model year and sometimes sooner.

It raises questions about people’s competence to drive without such “assistance,” especially when such “assistance” becomes unavailable.

This happens for the same basic reason that you lose the “assistance” of your eyesight when a gnat flies into your eyes. In all new cars, the driver “assistance” tech relies on cameras mounted around the vehicle’s perimeter. What happens when these cameras can no longer see? Cameras cannot see through fog or a layer of ice. These types of weather conditions hamper the software/programming.

Then, you no longer have “assistance.”

This has happened to me numerous times. As a car reviewer, I drive many new cars and often drive them in fog or sleet and snow, as most of us have to do because we live in the real world instead of the showroom.

Dust and mud do the trick, too. Tall berms by the side of the road (especially in curves) also sometimes do the trick, fooling the camera into “seeing” an obstacle ahead that isn’t there or, rather, isn’t in the vehicle’s travel path. But not having a mind, the “assistance” tech can’t tell the difference and so “assists” by slamming on the brakes in the middle of the curve or the middle of the road for no apparent reason at all.

Such things have happened to me in different cars, so it is not a make/model specific problem. And it happened again, just yesterday, in the ’21 Subaru Crosstrek I am test driving at the moment.

It was very foggy out. I could still see, but the Subaru’s EyeSight system couldn’t. For various reasons, a non-biological eye cannot (yet) see as well as a biological eye in good working order. Most of the non-biological eyes affixed to the exteriors of new cars cannot wipe away a crust of ice or a splash of mud, which amounts to them not seeing at all when this happens.

And then the “assistance” no longer does.

As happened in the Subaru I was driving due to the heavy fog. A warning chime sounded, an icon illuminated to let me know I was no longer being “assisted.”

For those drivers accustomed to such “assistance,” this is arguably dangerous. It’s analogous to an airplane that doesn’t expect the pilot to fly it competently at all times and then sometimes stops flying it for him.

This is interesting given that “assistance” is marketed as a “safety” advance.

Perhaps even more dangerous than a false “assist” (as because of a berm in the curve that the tech confuses with something in the road) is the absence of “assistance,” when a “driver” (finger air quotes for the apparent reason) assumes it will be there to “assist” them and “drives” accordingly. The vehicle follows too closely to stop safely when the car ahead brakes suddenly. Our “driver” was texting because he depended on “assistance” to notice the problem and apply the brakes on his behalf, but the “assistance” is offline because of fog or some other reason.

That’s a problem.

The manufactured problem of encouraged inattentiveness, which, of course, is what this “assistance” is really all about–the enabling of non-driving.

Who wants to pay attention to the road when an important text just arrived? Lane Keep Assist will “assist”!

Who wants to learn to parallel park when “assistance” will do that for them? This brings us to a more profound problem with all of this “assistance”:

Never-developed competence.

Before there was “assistance,” drivers had to learn to parallel park a car themselves, without any “assistance.” Those who couldn’t do it were presumed correctly to be lacking the basic competence necessary to drive a vehicle safely. It was even one of the tests of competency required to qualify for a license to drive.

Even if not formally tested, the incompetent were self-selected out of the driver’s seat by their incapacity, whether as regards to parallel parking or some other competency, such as keeping the car in its lane, without “assistance.”

If not, nature took its course.

And fear kept incompetence somewhat in check. People drove within their limits, paying more attention because of consequences.

Now the incompetent are encouraged to be dangerously fearless. To be oblivious to their appalling incompetence as drivers. This is enabled and encouraged by the car industry, which has drunk deep of the “safety” Kool-Aid, addressing risk by discouraging competence. Why teach kids not to touch a hot stove? Instead, sell their parents a stove with some kind of barrier or cover and perhaps a sensor and buzzer that eructs when anyone gets near the thing!

It doesn’t matter that the adults know not to touch the stove because they learned what happens if they do. The kids never will learn to be careful around the hot stove.

What matters is that everyone feels “safe,” even if it costs everyone their adulthood.

That seems to be the design ethos at work. Don’t encourage competence but crutch incompetence.

It’s not very “safe.” But building this incompetent convenience into vehicles does seem to sell.

Eric Peters lives in Virginia and enjoys driving cars and motorcycles. In the past, Eric worked as a car journalist for many prominent mainstream media outlets. Currently, he focuses his time writing auto history books, reviewing cars, and blogging about cars+ for his website EricPetersAutos.com.

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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