Drivers with semi-autonomous features are relying on them too often and treating them as fully self-driving vehicles despite warnings from their owners manuals and numerous high-profile crashes, according to a study from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). The most advanced systems on the road from GM, Tesla and Nissan are all rated at SAE Level 2 for autonomous driving, which requires the driver to be ready to take over at any moment.
According to the study, users of Cadillac Super Cruise, Nissan/Infiniti ProPILOT Assist and Tesla Autopilot said they were more likely to perform non-driving-related activities while using their partial automation systems than when driving unassisted.
“The big-picture message here is that the early adopters of these systems still have a poor understanding of the technology’s limits,” said IIHS President David Harkey in a press release. “But we also see clear differences among the three owner populations. It’s possible that system design and marketing are adding to these misconceptions.”
The study notes that current systems, including Ford’s Blue Cruise, consist of two main features: adaptive cruise control and lane centering. Adaptive cruise control uses radar to gauge the distance from the car, or an object, in its path and uses the brakes and accelerator to keep the selected speed at a safe following distance. Lane centering uses sensors to keep the car centered in the driving lane, following the curves of the road with steering wheel adjustment when the lanes are clearly marked.
All systems require the driver’s eyes to be on the road. Cadillac, Tesla as of last year, and Ford use driver-facing cameras to make sure the person at the wheel is paying attention. All four systems allow drivers to have their hands off the wheel for an extended period of time with different warnings and systems for when the driver has to take over.
IIHS questioned 600 drivers, 200 for each Nissan, Cadillac and Tesla (Blue Cruise drivers weren’t surveyed), who routinely use the vehicles partial automation system. The survey found that 53 percent of Super Cruise users, 42 percent of Autopilot users and 12 percent of ProPilot Assist users said that they were comfortable treating their vehicles as fully self-driving.
It also found that Super Cruise and Autopilot users are more likely than ProPILOT users to do distracting things that involve taking their hands off the wheel or their eyes off the road. They’re also more likely to say they can do these nondriving activities better and more often while using their semi-autonomous systems. Similarly, Super Cruise users are also the most likely to say that an activity they think is unsafe to do when the system is switched off is safe to do when the system is switched on.
IIHS says that the marketing strategies contributed to the differences. Tesla system is named Autopilot, “evoking the systems used by commercial airplanes.” Cadillac shows drivers going hands free in the Escalade while clapping with a beat. Nissan’s ProPilot, IIHS says, sounds more like an assistance feature.
About 40 percent of Autopilot and Super Cruise users, both of which have lockout features if the driver doesn’t react to attention warnings, have reported that their systems switched off at some point while they were driving and would not reactivate. Drivers said they found the experience irritating, but did agree it would make drivers safer.
“These results from frequent users of three different partial automation systems once again drive home the need for robust, multifaceted safeguards,” said IIHS Research Scientist Alexandra Mueller, the lead author of the study and main architect of the Institute’s upcoming safeguards rating program in a press release.
“Many of these drivers said they had experiences where they had to suddenly take over the driving because the automation did something unexpected, sometimes while they were doing something they were not supposed to.”
Mueller added that, “the broad acceptance of attention reminders and system lockouts suggests not only that they have the potential to make it safer to use partial automation, but also that they could be implemented more widely to help combat driver distraction in general.”
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