Here I am, just shy of 18 years old, with a freshly issued driver’s license and the right to explore any remote part of the world on my own, on four wheels.
I welcomed any opportunity to drive family members anywhere, such as to the grocery store, sports practice, music performances, or weekend hiking. Each ride helped to improve my driving skills, train my reflexes to deal with unexpected movements of other cars, deal with the vehicle on slippery surfaces, and watch for unsuspected movements of pedestrians suddenly crossing the road.
My Visit with Grampa Walter
Six months later, and many miles of experience in the pocket, I finally went to visit my grandfather Walter for the summer in Austria. He lived 700 km away, consisting of 10 hours of highway, challenging small roads, alpine passes, and wonderful scenery.
Grampa Walter was 67, a successful self-taught entrepreneur who made it through the Great Depression and World War 2 with a strong will to succeed and prosper. He had always been a car enthusiast, driving over a million miles over small, dusty, and treacherous roads at a time when highways were just starting to connect cities across Europe. Over 45 years, he drove top-of-the-line German cars such as BMW, Mercedes, and large Audi convertibles. He was always happy to proudly share rides with family and friends in his latest car.
The big moment arrived. Walter, always the driver in charge, sat in as a passenger, probably for the first time in many, many years. As his first grandson, I was ready to show my driving prowess. I took him on a short tour, carefully rehearsed in order to minimize the risk of getting surprised by unfamiliar surroundings.
Driving was smooth but fast enough to show my confidence level with the drill. At the end of the tour, after perfect parallel parking in a tight spot, I turned to Grandpa with a smile, thanking him for sharing the drive and looking for praise. Walter smiled back and said “Roberto, you are a talented driver. But you look around too much”.
That statement felt like a shockingly cold shower. The message remained ingrained in my mind throughout decades of driving.
Dealing with Distractions While Driving
Like probably most of us, and despite all the best intentions to stay attentive all the time, I have found myself in several critical situations. A few of them turned into close calls that did not end in severe crashes, only thanks to split-second instinctive corrections and a bit of luck. My mind always goes back to what my grandfather said. My driving skills have improved since that time long ago when I was 18, and I always strive to keep my eye on the road. However, that is not always enough.
These days, there are so many factors competing for our attention, such as drowsiness, boredom, passengers in the car, and even life priorities floating through our head. All of these affect our ability to focus on what is happening on the road, ahead and around us.
Complacency is another big factor: 85% of crashes happen within 15 miles of our homes. We know every corner of the area, we know what to expect, and yet surprises happen.
The pervasiveness of the use of a cell phone while driving has made most of us addicted to getting the latest information or messages from friends and family. This is making the situation worse, as we now feel obligated to stay aware of everything that happens in our world, not just the road ahead.
Humans are not machines. The ability to stay 100% focused on a task for extended periods of time is a prerogative of high-performance athletes. Most of us are not trained for that, nor willing to spend the overwhelming effort needed to shape our minds to achieve that. The truth is, driving does not require 100% focus all the time, but there is a certain amount needed to constantly scan the scene, operate the controls and get ready to trigger alerts to the brain to instantly switch mode when sudden action is required.
In the old days, driving required a high level of coordination of multiple mechanical actions, like frequent gear changes, pressing the clutch pedal, synchronizing pressure on the gas pedal properly to avoid unpleasant shaking of the car, the anticipation of critical braking spots in slippery conditions to prevent traction loss, car spins, etc.
Power steering, automated gear selection, traction control, anti-brake-lock, lane departure warning and assist, forward collision warning and assist, emergency braking, have all made driving much easier, no matter the size and weight of the vehicle. However, the need for driver supervision has not gone away, until Level 5 fully autonomous vehicles will rule the world (probably not anytime soon).
The Driver’s Virtual Co-Driver
What we need, more than ever, is a true virtual co-driver solution that:
- Detects momentary lapses of attention of the driver
- Evaluates and “understands” the level of risk
- Predicts the time of intervention left before a crash becomes unavoidable
- Reminds the driver of switching priorities
- Pays attention to the road
- Is ready to intervene when needed
We need a virtual co-driver solution that knows how to anticipate unfolding risks, knows how to “read” a human driver’s awareness, and knows how to coach the driver with effective and long-lasting messages.
Driving basics haven’t changed much since my grandfather was driving. You still press the gas to accelerate and the brake to stop. It’s the distractions that have gotten more difficult to navigate through. It’s no longer enough to keep your eyes on the road – the need for a virtual co-driver is greater now than ever.
Grandpa Walter, where are you?
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