NASA study warns smart car features may increase drowsy driving risk

NASA is looking into the factors behind fatigued driving and how new automation technologies may both help — and exacerbate — the problem. Drowsy driving is responsible for many vehicular accidents and deaths every year, according to the NHTSA, but partially automated vehicles equipped with smart features may make this issue worse, not better.

The findings come from the NASA Ames Research Center's Fatigue Countermeasures Lab, the space agency has announced in a new editorial about the study. Many smart car features, such as lane assist, help improve car safety by adding the watchful eye of sensors and algorithms into the mix.

The new NASA study, however, notes that such features put drivers into a passive role — they must stay aware to take over in case human intervention is necessary, yet the passive nature of this role may make drivers more likely to get sleepy in the driver's seat.

The risk of sleepiness in the driver's seat of a partially automated car is greater when the driver is already sleep-deprived, NASA notes. The data will help the space agency understand how to safely implement autonomous technologies into aircraft and other systems, also highlighting some of the potential issues that should be kept in mind when adding similar features to cars.

NASA's research involved participants who were put at the wheel of driving simulators, including instances where a self-driving mode was used. The scientists used electrodes to monitor the drivers' brain activity while also monitoring their eye movements.

In instances where the participants were passively observing the simulation rather than actively controlling the vehicle, NASA notes that the participants were more likely to nod off and that they reported feeling more sleepy.