September 27, 2021
NASA Studies Automated Systems And Sleepiness

The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration NHTSA has said for years that drowsy driving is the cause of a large number of car crashes. One might think that self-driving cars could be a solution to that issue. Since cars don’t get sleepy it should be a solid plan. It turns out that since cars are only partially automated the problem of drowsy driving is worse now than it’s ever been. NASA studied the impact of automation in their Fatigue Countermeasures Lab and determined a more passive role while driving lead to being drowsy.

NASA’s lab wanted to know how humans interact with autonomous systems in both cars and planes. Their finding would contribute to research about how to safely introduce automation among the growing complexity of many of the advanced systems available in both cars and planes. The use of autonomous systems is becoming more common even in commercial aviation. Some pilots report using autopilot as a backup when they are coping with being sleepy during a flight. Since driving is, in many ways, a similar task to flying and there are far more drivers to study than pilots NASA decided to study them first.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that a significant portion of the population nationwide doesn’t get sufficient sleep. The study participants were selected due to similar habits as the general population. Many of them got less than the recommended eight hours of sleep per night. The results of the NASA study showed than when a driver was supervising – rather than actively operating – the vehicle, participants reported feeling sleepier and showed signs of “nodding off.” The participants also showed slower reaction times compared to the active drivers.

“The bottom line of the study isn’t that self-driving cars are inherently more or less safe than manual driving,” said Erin Flynn-Evans, director of the Fatigue Countermeasures Lab. “It’s that when people don’t get enough sleep, they are vulnerable in both driving scenarios. These finding have serious implications on the commercial trucking industry. This is an industry with a reputation for sleepy drivers that has seen a dramatic increase in automation in recent years.

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