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Drivers have dangerous misconceptions about self-driving cars

People seem to be confused about the difference between autonomous and assisted driving technology, with worrying implications for road safety, says Thatcham Research

Just over 70% of drivers worldwide believe they can go out and buy a fully-autonomous, self-driving car today, according to research commissioned by automotive research consultancy Thatcham Research, Euro NCAP (New Car Assessment Programme) and Global NCAP, which has uncovered potentially dangerous levels of confusion over exactly what the current generation of connected vehicles are capable of.

The study of 1,567 motorists from China, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, the UK and the US was conducted by Opinion Matters. It found that 10% of drivers would be tempted to have a nap while using an assisted driving feature such as adaptive cruise control, and 34% would use a mobile phone – both highly dangerous and illegal activities.

Just under half of drivers did not believe they would be liable in the event of a crash while using assisted driving systems.

Thatcham’s director of research, Matthew Avery, laid the blame for the lack of clarity firmly at the door of car makers such as Audi, BMW and Tesla, all of which rely heavily on assisted driving capabilities in their advertising.

“Some carmakers are designing and marketing vehicles in such a way that drivers believe they can relinquish control. Carmakers want to gain competitive edge by referring to ‘self-driving’ or ‘semi-autonomous’ capability in their marketing, but it is fuelling consumer confusion. This is exacerbated by some systems doing too much for the driver, who ends up disengaged,” said Avery.

“Our message is that today’s technology supports the driver. It is not automated driving and it is not to be relied upon at the expense of driver attentiveness. The driver is in control and must always remain alert. If used correctly, highway assist systems will improve road safety and reduce fatalities, but they won’t if naming and marketing convinces drivers that the car can take care of itself,” he added.

The report cited a number of vague claims from carmakers, such as “The new Audi A6 is developed to take a step towards the era of autonomous driving, thanks to the Audi AI garage pilot and the Audi AI parking pilot”, from Audi, and “The C-Class is able to drive semi-autonomously in certain situations”, from Mercedes.

Tesla, which has been involved in a number of fatal crashes where it is thought drivers abrogated responsibility for their vehicle while using assisted driving features, makes the claim: “All Tesla vehicles produced in our factory, including Model 3, have the hardware needed for full self-driving capability at a safety level substantially greater than that of a human driver.”

“The lack of driver training and standardised controls, symbols and names for these features is further muddying the waters for consumers,” said Avery, a suggestion that the report appears to back up, suggesting that 74% of drivers said there should be standardised conventions for assisted driving features.

Euro NCAP, the pan-European car safety testing programme, said that no car on the market today provides full autonomy and that drivers remained fully responsible for safe driving whether using assisted features or not.

Moreover, it said, such systems should never be relied upon as an alternative to safe and controlled driving.

The body has released assessments of assistance technologies in 10 new cars currently on the UK market to help drivers better understand the current limits of the technology they are buying into.

These are the Audi A6, the BMW 5 Series, the DS 7 Crossback, the Ford Focus, the Hyundai Nexo, the Mercedes C-Class, the Nissan Leaf, the Tesla Model S, and the Volvo V60.

“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,” said Euro NCAP secretary general, Michiel van Ratingen.

Rob Cummings, head of motor and liability at the Association of British Insurers, said that while it was essential consumers know the capabilities and limitations of their cars, the carmakers were perhaps not wholly to blame.

“It’s a delicate balancing act for carmakers. Offer too much assistance to the driver and they disengage, offer too little and the driver thinks ‘What’s the point?’ and switches the system off. The best systems are those that support the driver, but leave them in no doubt that they remain in control,” he said.

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