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Driving on Autopilot: What is It?

2 minute read

Have you ever driven on a familiar route, arrived at your destination but failed to remember much of the journey? That’s what is commonly known as ‘driving on autopilot’. Not to be confused with the function in some cars, driving on autopilot is similar to highway hypnosis which occurs during long periods of driving.

So, how exactly do we enter this autopilot mode and is it safe?

A study suggests that repeated exposure and familiarity with a route can lead to inattention blindness, meaning people drive without really being aware that they are driving. The route is so well ingrained into our memory that our brain – even without consciously doing so – can get us home. However, when we enter autopilot mode we do not actively assess our surroundings nor can we recall the trip.

An experiment carried out in 2014 observed university students who were walking down a path while looking at their phones. Findings showed that these students were able to avoid major obstacles, such as signs on the footpath, but failed to actually see and realise that researchers had hung money on the trees. Inattention blindness supports the idea that while we are in autopilot mode, our brain can only process external stimuli to a limited extent.

Inattention blindness also links to the Default Mode Network (DMN), regions in the brain that are most active when we perform tasks that we are accustomed to such as driving home. The DMN is linked to memory-based information and predictions that help us make automated, fast and efficient decisions under stable environments.

Simply put, we are able to effectively and accurately perform tasks that we are used to, such as tying our shoelaces or walking to and from home under stable conditions, but without conscious thought.

Researchers monitored the brain activity of 28 adult participants who had to learn how to play a card game without instructions. As the participants repeatedly played the game, they gradually learned how the game worked and didn’t need to actively work out the rules. This was when the DMN was very active, yielding highly accurate and efficient results.

But the DMN uses memory-based information to make efficient predictions. This means it is not helpful when further external attention and information is needed to make decisions, such as when another vehicle cuts you off suddenly or when a pedestrian steps onto the road to retrieve something. In these situations, it is likely that a ‘manual mode’ overrides the DMN, jolting you back into consciousness.

As such, driving on autopilot can be extremely dangerous. The Association for Psychological Science drew a link between the high number of crashes that happen within 5km away from the driver’s homes. This suggests that driving on familiar roads, where the DMN is most likely to be active, can be fatal.

Being aware of autopilot as you drive on familiar roads is the first step in minimising the risk of it.


Sources: (1) (2) (3)

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