World-first testing system aims to end dangerous confusion around “self-driving” cars

Thursday, 1st October 2020, 7:00 am
Updated Thursday, 1st October 2020, 2:20 pm

A new testing standard which ranks the assisted driving systems of new cars has been launched in an effort to reduce confusion around the current technology.

A growing number of cars are being sold with systems - such as Tesla’s Autopilot and BMW’s Driving Assistant Professional - which claim to ease the strain on drivers by offering support to keep a car in its lane and maintain a safe distance to other vehicles even when moving through traffic jams.

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However, safety experts at Thatcham Research and Euro NCAP have warned that the way such systems are marketed is causing confusion and leading to accidents and even deaths because buyers don’t understand the limitations of the systems.

In a bid to reduce this confusion and give drivers a clear indication of how good such systems really are, the two bodies have launched an assisted driving assessment which ranks vehicles on how effective their systems are and how well they communicate and engage with the driver.

The grading tested everything from luxury SUVs to mainstream superminis with driver assistance systems (Photo: Thatcham Research)

Dangerous misconceptions

Matthew Avery, Thatcham’s director of research, explained. “The systems that are currently allowed on our roads are there to assist the driver – but do not replace them. Unfortunately, there are motorists that believe they can purchase a self-driving car today. This is a dangerous misconception that sees too much control handed to vehicles that are not ready to cope with all situations.

“Clarity is therefore required to make sure drivers understand the capability and performance of current assisted systems. There are safety and insurance implications that must be considered seriously.”

The new tests assess cars on three categories. The first two judge the effectiveness of the speed and steering assistance and adaptive cruise control systems and how well the car protects the driver in an emergency, such as a system failure or the driver becoming ill. The third addresses driver engagement in terms how accurate the marketing material is, how effectively the car monitors the driver’s engagement with the driving process, how easy it is for the driver to interact with the assisted system and how clearly the car communicates the assisted status.

The first batch of assessments testing 10 cars ranging from luxury saloons to superminis, with the Mercedes GLE earning the highest score for its strong performance across all three categories. The BMW 3 Series attained similar scores, with the Audi A8 scoring well for assistance and safety back-up but less well for its driver engagement.

Mixed results

Tesla's much-vaunted system was ranked top overall for its effectiveness but the tested Model 3 was downgraded because it discouraged driver engagement and the marketing and instruction material overstated its abilities.

Matthew Avery commented: “The first batch of results show some car makers have developed robust assisted driving systems and that’s good to see. But there are also significant gaps in capability on other vehicles.

“For instance, the Tesla Model 3 was the best for vehicle assistance and safety back-up. But lost ground for over selling what its ‘Autopilot’ system is capable of, while actively discouraging drivers from engaging when behind the wheel.

“Our assessments highlight that, while today’s driver assist systems can support the driver, they are not capable of, nor designed to, take complete control in all critical situations.”