On Thursday, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety announced the creation of a rating system for advanced hands-free driver assistance systems like Tesla’s Autopilot and General Motors’ Super Cruise. Later this year, the IIHS will release its first set of ratings, with rating levels of good, fair, marginal, or poor. Having a good driver monitoring system will be key to getting a good rating.
And the institute is not the only one. Also on Thursday, Consumer Reports revealed that it consider the security of these technological features, adding points if there is a good driver monitoring system. CR says that so far only Ford’s Super Cruise and BlueCruise systems are safe enough to earn those extra points. Meanwhile, starting with the 2024 model year, CR will start subtracting points for cars that offer partial automation without proper driver oversight.
“Partial automation systems can make long trips less arduous, but there’s no evidence that they make driving safer,” says IIHS President David Harkey. “In fact, the opposite may be the case if the systems lack adequate safeguards.”
Indeed, the data we have had in recent years is not reliable. For several years, Tesla and NHTSA repeatedly cited a statistic that the electric automaker’s lane-keeping system made cars significantly safer — instead, that claim fell apart when a third party actually dug into the data.
These are not driverless cars
Let’s quickly define what we are talking about, that is to say partially automated vehicles. Specifically, these are vehicles that combine an adaptive cruise control feature (which reacts to vehicles ahead and slows down to match their speed) and a lane-keeping feature (which follows lane markers on the roadway and keeps the car centered via the steering).
It is important to note that the human driver is fully responsible for situational awareness at all times, hence the requirement for a driver monitoring system that ensures this is actually happening.
Or, as the Partners for Automated Vehicle Education say: “When you use partial automation, the human stops actively driving and starts what is called a ‘vigilance task’: supervising the automation and waiting for a breakdown. We are actually less good at these tasks than to drive actively, because the risk of inattention is very high.” (In reality, all that PAVE yarn on this subject is worth reading.)
Unfortunately, the general public is experiencing a high degree of confusion due to a combination of misleading marketing from one automaker and a classification system for automotive engineers but never the public.
Leaving Tesla’s problematic branding aside, it’s time for us to move beyond SAE levels of automation and instead think of these “partially automated” (or “conditionally automated”) options as a separate set. technologies for autonomous vehicles. These hands-free driving aids require the human behind the seat to be attentive at all times, which is not the case for driverless autonomous vehicles like robotaxis, low-speed shuttles and delivery robots.
How to get a good grade?
According to the IIHS, to earn a good rating, a partially automated driving system must “use multiple types of alerts to quickly remind the driver to watch the road ahead and put their hands back on the wheel when they’ve looked away or left steering wheel unattended for too long.”
Research shows that the more you alert a driver, the more likely they are to react, so expect a combination of audio, haptic and visual cues, which Super Cruise already does, for example. (It will use audible alerts as well as seat vibration and display alerts on the main dashboard.)
If the driver ignores the increasingly urgent cascade of alerts, a well-classified system will slow the vehicle to a stop (or ramp) and notify emergency services (via an OEM concierge like OnStar). If such an event occurs, the partially automated system should not re-engage unless the car has been turned off and then on again.
Interestingly, the IIHS also has other requirements for getting a good grade. Automatic lane changes must be initiated or approved by the human driver. Making lane changes automatic is an easy way to convince people that a vehicle is much more autonomous than it actually is. And the IIHS says adaptive cruise control shouldn’t automatically resume if the vehicle has come to a complete stop for too long or if the driver isn’t paying attention to the road ahead. And the IIHS also wants the systems to require the driver to wear their seatbelt and activate automatic emergency braking for the vehicle to operate.
“No one knows when we’ll have truly self-driving cars, if ever. As automakers add partial automation to more and more vehicles, it’s imperative they include effective safeguards that help drivers stay focused on the game,” says Harkey.