Safety experts have warned drivers that car makers could be lulling them into a false sense of security. One of the country’s foremost car safety experts believes motor manufacturers are overusing the word ‘autonomous’. As a consequence, drivers are getting the wrong idea about their cars’ capabilities.
Thatcham Research, an independent automotive safety specialist, and the Association of British Insurers (ABI) want car firms to be clearer about what the assisted driving systems on their cars can actually do.
What is the problem?
Experts at Thatcham think car firms’ use of the word autonomous gives the wrong idea. They say assisted driving technologies are not autonomous or self-driving systems. But they believe the way car makers describe them could make drivers think the car is more capable than it is.
What’s the result?
Thatcham claims an increasing number of drivers are crashing because they’re over-relying on technology. And the problem is car makers haven’t designed the tech to drive the car independently. Matthew Avery, head of research at Thatcham Research explains: “We are starting to see real-life examples of the hazardous situations that occur when motorists expect the car to drive and function on its own.
“Specifically, where the technology is taking ownership of more and more of the driving task. But the motorist may not be sufficiently aware that they are still required to take back control in problematic circumstances.” Thatcham has produced a video showing what happens when drivers rely too much on assisted driving tech.
Assisted or automated?
Experts believe names for tech such as ‘Autopilot’ are unhelpful. It wants there to be a clear distinction between assisted and automated driving.
Assisted driving refers to various technologies. These include Autonomous Emergency Braking (AEB), or cruise control that automatically maintains a safe distance to the vehicle in front. With this equipment, the driver must remain engaged and responsible for safe driving.
Automated driving means systems that are fully in control of speed and steering. These enable the driver to get on with something else while they’re at the wheel. Despite the hype around self-driving cars, fully automated vehicles are unlikely to make an appearance until some time in the next decade.
In an assisted car, the driver is responsible at all times for any accidents. In an automated car, the motor manufacturer is liable if the car causes a crash.
Does this mean self-driving cars won’t happen?
Most certainly not. Self-driving cars will become a fact of life at some point in the future. But director of general insurance policy at the ABI, James Dalton says: “We are a long way from fully autonomous cars that will be able to look after all parts of a journey.”
Thatcham’s Matthew Avery claims: “Fully Automated vehicles that can own the driving task from A to B, with no need for driver involvement whatsoever, won’t be available for many years to come. Until then, drivers remain criminally liable for the safe use of their cars. As such, the capability of current road vehicle technologies must not be oversold.”
James Dalton adds: “Insurers are major supporters of efforts to get assisted and autonomous vehicles onto the UK’s roads. Given the part human error plays in the overwhelming majority of accidents, these technologies have the potential to dramatically improve road safety.”
What will happen in the mean time?
Thatcham is to embark on a testing programme of cars with assisted driving systems. It wants to assess how car makers describe the systems in promotional literature and what they call them.
Avery explains: “The next three years mark a critical period as car makers introduce new systems which appear to manage more and more of the driving task. These are not Autonomous systems. Our concern is that many are still in their infancy. They are not as robust or capable as they are declared to be.
“We’ll be testing and evaluating these systems, to give consumers guidance on the limits of their performance. The ambition is to keep people safe and ensure that drivers do not cede more control over their vehicles than the manufacturer intended.”
The ABI’s James Dalton adds: “Manufacturers must be responsible in how they describe and name what their vehicles can do, and the insurance industry is ready to hold them to account on this.”