While it’s likely to take some time before everyday motorists will be able to order fully autonomous vehicles, there’s a wave of semi-autonomous tech starting to reach market and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety wants buyers to know how well they perform.
Tesla’s Autopilot is already in widespread use and General Motors has begun heavily promoting its Super Cruise system — with the even more advanced Ultra Cruise on its way. Ford, Mercedes-Benz and an assortment of other manufacturers are set to follow.
But the advent of semi-autonomous technology has raised concerns among consumer and safety advocates. Those worries were underscored earlier this month when Los Angeles prosecutors leveled manslaughter charges against a driver whose Tesla was operating under Autopilot when it struck another vehicle, killing two passengers.
“So far, even the most advanced systems require active supervision by the driver,” the IIHS stated in a release announcing the new test.
“However, some manufacturers have oversold the capabilities of their systems,” it said, “prompting drivers to treat the systems as if they can drive the car on their own. In egregious cases, drivers have been documented watching videos or playing games on their cellphones or even taking naps while speeding down the expressway.”
The IIHS already takes into consideration less advanced safety technologies as it rates new vehicles, but the new test takes into account the fact that most manufacturers will soon offer technology capable of taking on some degree of driving. Some systems, such as Nissan’s ProPilot, require drivers to keep hands on the wheel at all times. Some let drivers go hands-off under limited circumstances. GM claims Super Cruise can take control while operating on more than 200,000 miles of limited-access roadways in the U.S. and Canada.
Meanwhile, even more advanced systems are coming. GM says its next-gen Ultra Cruise will eventually operate on 95% of U.S. and Canadian roads without driver intervention. Mercedes-Benz, meanwhile, recently received approval from German authorities to start offering a similar technology in that country.
Promises so far unmet
While many safety advocates believe that fully autonomous vehicles eventually will result in safer roads and fewer traffic jams, they’ve also raised concerns about the technology currently available. While some features, like forward collision alerts, appear to reduce the number of crashes and injuries, the evidence is less compelling for partial automation, like lane centering.
“Partial automation systems may make long drives seem like less of a burden, but there is no evidence that they make driving safer,” said IIHS president David Harkey. “In fact, the opposite may be the case if systems lack adequate safeguards.”
Tesla’s Autopilot has taken its fair share of heat, particularly from those who feel the automaker has overhyped the capabilities of its AV technology by using names like “Full Self-Driving.” Federal safety regulators are currently examining a number of crashes involving versions of Autopilot.
How the ratings will work
Under the new program, individual systems will be graded either “Good,” “Acceptable,” “Marginal” or “Poor.”
The insurance trade group will put semi-autonomous systems through a variety of tests. Among other things, a manufacturer will have to monitor a driver to make sure that their “eyes are directed at the road and their hands are either on the wheel or ready to grab it at all times.”
This is an area where Tesla has been regularly faulted. But the automaker recently announced plans to add a driver monitoring system. Other manufacturers use technologies such as cameras to track driver attention. In some instances, a vehicle will sound an alert if a driver is distracted. Others will slow down the vehicle and even bring it to a complete stop.
The type of alert will also be considered in the new IIHS ratings.
Don’t expect any “Good” ratings yet
And the test will look at how a system handles things like automatic lane changes and restarts after a vehicle is brought to a complete stop.
Don’t be surprised if the IIHS doesn’t hand out any “Good” ratings, at least initially. If anything, it’s signaled it is skeptical about today’s semi-autonomous technologies.
“While most partial automation systems have some safeguards in place to help ensure drivers are focused and ready, none of them meets all the pending IIHS criteria,” it said in a statement.