Euro NCAP: Drivers overestimate the abilities of ‘autonomous’ cars
euro ncap delve into the hype of autonomous driver systems

Euro NCAP: Drivers overestimate the abilities of ‘autonomous’ cars

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Fully autonomous vehicles are seen as something of a panacea in the transport and logistics industries. Smart cars and trucks capable of operating independently could radically improve safety and reduce journey times. At least that’s the vision.

Ultimately, these benefits would be partly the result of removing human error from the equation – a factor thought to be responsible for the vast majority of traffic accidents.

An estimated 39,141 people lost their lives in America on all modes of transport in 2017, according to the US Department of Transport. The vast majority – 37,133 deaths – were in motor vehicle crashes. Ninety-four percent involved driver-related factors, such as distraction (3,500 deaths), impairment through drink or drugs (11,000 deaths), speeding (10,000 deaths), or illegal manoeuvres.

These figures suggest that human drivers are the biggest danger to other human beings, and so getting rid of the driver would appear to be the logical answer – in the long run, at least.

Although there are grounds to argue that the role of human error is overstated as a cause of crashes, consensus has formed around the belief that a fully automated transport system would save lives.

However, the big problem lies in getting to that point, which may be many years in the future. Until then, interactions between human drivers and autonomous systems – many of which will still be under development – may continue to cause problems.

The fatal accidents involving Uber and Tesla vehicles earlier this year highlight what can happen when responsibility for safety is shared and the lines begin to blur. So much so, that there has been a marked fall in consumer trust in driverless technology in the US.

Despite this, the US announced earlier this month that it intends to sweep aside federal regulation of autonomous vehicle tests in favour of a voluntary safety code and industry self-policing. It is also redefining the concept of a driver to include robots and automated systems.

The aim is to open up the entire country to driverless car tests – partly to gain an advantage over China, which is introducing more and more regulations.

In this high-risk period of transition, one of the big challenges may be misleading information and consumers believing manufacturers’ hype. And evidence suggests that many do just that.

Motoring consumers do believe hype

Research released this week from car safety assessment group Euro NCAP found that more than 70 percent of car drivers believe that it’s already possible to purchase a car that can drive itself.

That figure contrasts starkly with the current capabilities of commercially available systems. It would appear as though manufacturers and misleading marketing campaigns ought to take more responsibility for what Euro NCAP describes as “significant confusion” among consumers.

In part this is an issue of semantics. Several manufacturers – Tesla included – use terms such as ‘autopilot’ and ‘semi-autonomous’ to describe their driver assistance technologies. Indeed, when challenged, Tesla will point out that its Autopilot system is merely a driver-assistance technology, and yet continues to use a deeply misleading name.

Meanwhile, some manufacturers’ marketing materials tend to play on the luxury and hands-free nature of driving with such systems engaged.

“Cars on the market today can provide driver assistance, but this should not be confused with automated driving. The driver remains fully responsible for safe driving,” reads a statement from Euro NCAP.

“Generally, official marketing content is clear in what the role of the driver is, but in the case of BMW a promotional video for the 5 Series is misleading, as the driver takes their hands off the wheel where it is assumed that the vehicle can drive autonomously.

“Tesla uses a number of promotional videos which also suggest vehicle autonomy. This creates a mismatch between more accurate information included in the user manual and more misleading information in marketing materials.”

Michiel van Ratingen, Euro NCAP secretary general said, “Euro NCAP’s message from these tests is clear: cars, even those with advanced driver assistance systems, need a vigilant, attentive driver behind the wheel at all times.

“It is imperative that state-of-the-art passive and active safety systems remain available in the background as a vital safety backup.”

(One of the problems identified in the Uber crash in the Spring is that Volvo’s onboard safety systems had been disengaged by Uber’s technology in the test vehicle.)

Putting ‘autonomous’ vehicles to the test

To see how cars on the market that offer advanced driver assistance systems – the Audi A6, BMW 5 Series, DS 7 Crossback, Ford Focus, Hyundai NEXO, Mercedes-Benz C Class, Nissan LEAF, Tesla Model S, Toyota Corolla, and the Volvo V60 – stack up against the public’s perception of them, Euro NCAP developed a series of tests to assess their performance in traffic scenarios simulated on a test track.

The results show some things that we know already: that assisted driving features work well when used correctly. But they are not infallible and still require the driver to maintain focus.

For that reason, Euro NCAP argues that the safest systems aren’t necessarily those that are the most capable. Hands-off features can lead drivers to take risks by handing over too much responsibility to the vehicle. Instead, those systems that work cooperatively with a driver are viewed as the safest middle ground, it says.

Additional reporting and analysis: Chris Middleton.