How the Tech in Your Car Is Making You a Bad Driver

Modern car tech volvo
Courtesy of Volvo
Courtesy of Volvo

When you climb into the driver's seat of a car, chances are high it comes with some very cool backup safety features like automatic braking, a blind-spot warning system, and automated parking. Cameras that let you see on all sides, nifty sensors that warn you if you drift out of your lane, that kind of thing. These are good things, because the majority of drivers, to put it bluntly, suck at driving.

But those driving aides beget a fascinating paradox: there is zero doubt that they save lives, but the very technologies that make your car safer are also turning you into a bad driver.

You rely on driving aides as a reassuring crutch

Using driving aides is a lot like using calculators in middle-school math class. Students aren't using them because they are unable to solve math problems without one, nor are they being used as a time-saving tool. Rather, calculators are a crutch, a salve students use to reassure themselves they're doing the problem right.

So it goes with things like blind-spot monitors, antilock brakes, and traction control. Anyone that's driven with them for any length of time has adapted their driving to rely on them. And just as relying on a calculator can erode a student's confidence, the same can be said about dependence on driver aids -- you get so used to them, you don't think you have the skills to go without.

The more you use them, the less you trust your own judgment behind the wheel

A lack of confidence in your skills can be incredibly stressful, especially when you're at the helm of an insanely powerful machine. Remember driver's ed? Constantly questioning yourself, checking your blind spot upwards of 15 times before you changed lanes, afraid you missed something? But a blind-spot monitor gives a driver external reassurance in his or her actions. Seeing the monitor's light, hearing its steady beep while parking, has a soothing effect. That's why it feels like a luxury to have them, and that's why they're marketed as, ta da, luxury options.

This need for reassurance can be addictive, and hey, I get it, feeling luxuriously calm and taken care of is easy to get used to. But what happens when you get into a car without those driving systems? Sudden anxiety forms over having to make decisions yourself: "Is someone in my blind spot? Am I drifting into the next lane? Is there enough room for me to park here?"

Relying on tech leads to mental shortcuts
Flickr/John W. Iwanski

Cars still depend on us to drive, but we're becoming less dependable

The more cars perform basic skills for us, the less we remember how to perform, uh, basic skills. For example, ever heard of threshold braking? It's a driving technique that was mostly rendered obsolete when anti-lock brake systems rolled around. Just think about what happens as more and more cars like the BMW i3 hit the road. Steering and lane-keeping assistance, radar and windshield cameras, active braking and autopilot... even our most basic driving skills will gradually start to erode.

Not to mention our attention spans. As the head of Google's self-driving car program told Road & Track, "It's the conundrum of this technology: the better you make it, the more relaxed the human agent behind the wheel becomes. And the more relaxed you become, the less attentive you are."

Case in point, the Tesla autopilot is a driver aid, albeit an advanced one. Drivers don't understand that -- they switch it on and cool their heels, fall asleep, or worse, crash. When you take mental shortcuts and give up crucial components of your decision-making ability, you shift the psychological responsibility to the car itself... but the legal and physical consequences haven't shifted in the slightest.

Even Google is leery of half-way solutions.
Flickr/Travis Wise

Self-driving cars will eventually solve everything, but we're nowhere close yet

In the quest for fully autonomous cars, these sensors and subsystems are the fundamental building blocks on which the cars of the future will be built. But in the meantime, we're entering into a murky transitional period. Google's John Krafcik pointed out that when the company began its tests of autonomous cars, the findings were "pretty frightening" in terms of what drivers were -- and weren't -- doing behind the wheel. The biggest hurdle for autonomous cars still remains all those unpredictable everyday situations on the road that absolutely require human judgment and intervention.

The technology in our cars is heading in a direction where, eventually, drivers themselves will be obsolete. You'll just hop in, sit back, and let the thing take you where you want to go. Until then, be aware next time you let your car check your blind spot for you. All that fancy-shmancy new tech is there to play backup -- you've still gotta steer the ship.

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Aaron Miller is the Cars editor for Thrillist, and can be found on Twitter when he's not driving. He's not yet ready to surrender to the rolling autonomous overlords, though he does keep traction control activated on the street.