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Women may be better at semi-autonomous driving than men: Report

A driver in China demonstrates the functionality of an autonomous taxi.

A driver in China demonstrates the functionality of a self-driving taxi.
image: JADE GAO / AFP (beautiful pictures)

As the automotive world continues to trend semi-automatic driver assistance technology, researchers have begun to question the skills of drivers behind the wheel. Now, a study published on Scientific reports suggests that, in a situation where the driver needs to re-establish control of level three semi-autonomous vehicle, women can react faster and take over the car more stably than their male counterparts.

The study analyzed how well different drivers were able to control a third-speed automatic in situations where the driver needed to re-establish their full attention on the act of driving. . As a reminder, third-degree autonomy can be described as “conditional automation”, meaning that the vehicle can perform most of the tasks of standard driving thanks to technologies that can detect changes in the environment. However, human override is still necessary in certain cases – drivers don’t always have to be fully alert, as technology is doing a lot of the work.

In this study, researchers ran 76 drivers (33 women and 43 men) through a driving simulator. In that simulation, the driver is expected to occasionally steer the vehicle when external factors require it – such as driving where “there are no signs and complete road markings, construction sites or in rural areas”. The researchers wanted to analyze the impact of gender on this takeover, citing other studies that have highlighted how gender impacts “collision patterns, risk perception, confidence when driving, self-assessment of driving skills, driving anger and traffic violations”. It will therefore monitor that gender may also affect the ability to safely drive a vehicle.

As you might be imagining, women tend to rank slightly higher than their male counterparts here:

We found a marked sex difference in seizure performance in L3 AVs. Overall, women demonstrate better takeover performance than men. Compared with male participants, a smaller rate of hasty takeover was observed in female participants, although the difference was not statistically significant. In addition, female drivers were significantly more responsive to the takeover request initiated by the AV L3 system and the steering wheel was significantly more stable during a takeover than male participants. .

In sum: women took over the cars faster and more smoothly than men, though neither party could exactly be termed “bad” at the autonomous takeover.

The study also comes to a few other interesting conclusions:

  • Women are more likely to be skeptical of autonomous technology, even though they’re slightly better at using it than men.
  • Women tend to rank their driving skills less confidently than men, which could impact takeover time.
  • Both men and women struggled to enact a takeover in snowy or foggy weather conditions, which suggests a need for improved autonomous tech during those instances.

Of course, the study also notes its limitations. The test took place on a simulator, so some of the natural driving inclinations were lost. Researchers also noted that men and women often engage in different distracted activities while behind the wheel in the real world that were not simulated (i.e. women applying makeup while driving), so real-world findings could be different. Finally, there’s the sample size; it’s hard to make sweeping judgements about an entire gender’s driving behavior based on 76 British drivers.

But the purpose of the study was largely to establish a base of research where one didn’t exist before, allowing future researchers to mimic or alter the experiment. Whether or not the, say, American or Chinese driver base will have similar results would remain to be seen.

The full report is available for free on Scientific reports if you want to dig deep to see the exact terms of the test as well as some helpful charts outlining the results.

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