Photo Credit: GM (2012 Super Cruise prototype shown)

The state of self-driving cars on the road at the moment is we have some semi-autonomous systems that can get flustered and require human intervention. Not only is this the most critical feature of semi-autonomous cars, humans are really, really bad at it, as a new study finds.

The fine people at the University of Southampton recently published the findings of a study “Takeover Time in Highly Automated Vehicles: Noncritical Transitions to and From Manual Control,” and found that us humans are slow to take control of a semi-autonomous car that needs a human’s help. Not only that, but we’re inconsistently slow, which is particularly bad, as Popular Science reports.

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Here’s how the study worked, as explained by the researchers:

The authors observed 26 men and women (aged between 20 and 52) engaged in simulated driving at 70 mph, with and without a potentially distracting non-driving secondary task. They recorded response times as the drivers took over or relinquished control of the automated system. A takeover request was issued at random intervals ranging from 30 to 45 seconds during normal motorway-driving conditions. The authors found that drivers engaged in a secondary task, prior to a control transition, took longer to respond – posing a safety hazard.

Even in non-critical situations (that is, when the driver isn’t otherwise distracted by texting or eating soup or whatever), drivers needed between 1.9 and 25.7 seconds to adequately take control from a robot-car. This presents some challenges for designing a safe takeover procedure, as the study notes:

Alexander Eriksson explains: “Too short a lead time, for example seven seconds prior to taking control, as found in some studies of critical response time, could prevent drivers from responding optimally. This results in a stressed transition process, whereby drivers may accidentally swerve, make sudden lane changes, or brake harshly. Such actions are acceptable in safety-critical scenarios when drivers may have to avoid a crash, but could pose a safety hazard for other road users in non-critical situations.”

Obviously we want takeover times to be as short as possible, but it seems that too short of a time just makes us freak out. As we try to take control when it’s most needed, we could actually be making the situation worse. Great.

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Similar findings came up in a study by the University of Michigan, that even having a steering wheel and pedals in front of a self-driving car driver is a bad idea.

I’m beginning to understand why Tesla is reining in its auto-steer function away from highway use. Getting self-driving tech on the road is trickier than it seems.