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Your car is not self-driving, no matter how much it seems like it is

Ben Bradford Jan 16, 2019
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Advanced driver assistance systems "are like magic," says Alex Epstein, director of transportation safety at National Safety Council. “The problem is people don’t know how to use them."
McNew/Getty Images

Based on the commercials on TV, one could be forgiven for thinking the age of the self-driving car has arrived.

“With the push of a button, the line between man and machine was blurred,” intones the deep-voiced narrator in one car commercial currently on air.

“The ability to make a thousand decision before you even make one,” another ad says.

Automakers are competing to attract customers with advanced driver assistance systems, called ADAS in the industry. The term includes a suite of safety systems and convenience features that rely on sensors, which can detect other vehicles. The car may brake automatically if it senses a collision is imminent or steer a driver back into their lane if they are drifting.

AAA estimates if installed on all cars, forward collision warnings and automatic emergency braking could prevent almost 2 million crashes each year.

“These are like magic. They really are,” says Alex Epstein, the director of transportation safety at the nonprofit National Safety Council.

But the technology’s complex limitations, a blizzard of brand names and aspirational marketing have safety advocates worried that drivers may misunderstand how capable the features are.

“The problem is people don’t know how to use them. They don’t know what’s in their cars,” Epstein says.

Don’t let your car drive angry

Scott Berg, 57, pulls onto a freeway north of Los Angeles in his Volkswagen Atlas.

He bought it a couple of years ago in part for the array of technology features. It has blind-spot detectors, front- and rear-collision warnings, lane-keeping assist, which prevents drifting, and his favorite feature: adaptive cruise control.

“I’m going to get behind this guy and tell the car I want to go 80,” Berg says. “You pretty much set it and forget it.”

The car begins speeding up, but then senses another car ahead of Berg and slows down to match that car’s pace. If that driver moves or Berg switches lanes, his car will speed up again.

Berg is tech savvy. He works for a software company, and he researched his vehicle. The salesmen trained him on the features. He’s even taken the unusual step of opening his owner’s manual. So Berg knows adaptive cruise control may not work around tight turns or if another car is suddenly stopped ahead. But the list of caveats in the owner’s manual is far longer.

Here is only an excerpt: 

Switch off ACC under the following conditions due to system limitation:

  • When driving around curves, turn lanes, highway ramps, or construction zones; to prevent unwanted acceleration of the vehicle.
  • When driving through tunnels.
  • On roads with more than one lane, if other vehicles are driving more slowly in the fast lane. Vehicles in other lanes will normally not be detected and will, in this case, be passed from the slow lane.
  • When driving in multi-level garages or parking structures.
  • When there are metal objects, for example, tracks or metal plates in the road.
  • When driving on roads with gravel or loose pavement.
  • Under bad weather conditions or bad visibility, for example, in heavy rain, snowfall, or fog.

“I did not know that,” Berg says about that last condition. “It makes me glad I live in LA.”

Most drivers have knowledge gaps about these technologies, according to AAA. In a survey, four out of five drivers did not know their blind spot detectors can miss vehicles or pedestrians at certain speeds. A quarter of those drivers also said they no longer always check their blind spots.

Safety advocates worry that drivers will cede responsibilities to the technology, effectively treating “driver support” technologies as “self-driving.”

“If that’s the attitude, then it’s only a matter of time until you get in an accident,” says Hillary Abraham, a doctoral candidate at University of California, Irvine, who studies vehicle safety. 

It’s not your fault

Abraham says the most common resource drivers cite for information about their advanced safety features is the salesperson who sold the car. But in a study Abraham helped conduct while working for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s AgeLab, she found inconsistent information from car dealerships.

In visits to 18 car dealerships in the study, only six salespeople explained the advanced safety features thoroughly without prompting. Two gave explicitly wrong information about how to use a feature safely.

“The onus is really being placed on the consumer to find information, but it’s really difficult to find,” Abraham says.

Does it mean what you think it means?

First, drivers have to sort through all the different branding. One automaker may call its feature “advanced cruise control,” while another dubs its “intelligent cruise control,” and a third (Mercedes) labels it “distronic plus.”

“Automatic emergency braking has over 40 different names,” the National Safety Council’s Epstein says.

Despite containing the word “pilot,” brands such as Nissan’s ProPilot Assist, Ford’s CoPilot 360 and Tesla’s Autopilot are not self-driving. All have separate limitations.

“Some don’t stop you, some just slow you down. Some can’t see pedestrians, others can,” Epstein says. “And the problem is there’s no common nomenclature out there, there’s no commonality.”

Currently, there is no single source where drivers or prospective buyers can look up these limitations for separate brands in one place. 

Wild, wild west

Automakers acknowledge the confusion. Andy Christensen, who works on advanced safety features for Nissan, says the systems are complex, so it is difficult to create a simple list or explanations of the limitations.

He argues rather than trying to spell out every situation where a technology may not work, automakers can impart to customers a simple philosophy:

“These technologies aren’t driving for them. They are still driving,” Christensen says. “These systems are just helping in the background.”

But Epstein at the National Safety Council argues it is important for customers to understand the various limitations. The council has created a website called My Car Does What?, which explains the general features and limitations — but it is not specific to each car.

“Education needs to be done by the automakers in the vehicle, because every system is different,” Epstein says.

Advanced safety systems are not the first safety feature to have growing pains. It took years for the industry to unify around the term for one of the last major car safety advances, electronic stability control, and nearly two decades from that technology’s first introduction to a federal requirement that it come equipped on all new vehicles.

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