The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has confirmed what many people already know: Current autonomous vehicle systems aren’t ample substitutes for human drivers.
For a recent “Reality Check” study, the nonprofit tested five driver-assist systems from BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Tesla, and Volvo.
The results are, well … varied.
“We have found situations where the vehicles under semi-automated control may do things that can put you and your passengers at risk, and so you really need to be on top of it to prevent that from happening,” IIHS chief research officer David Zuby said in a statement, as reported by the Associated Press.
Humans have a love-hate relationship with technology. While devices like computers, smartphones, and interactive speakers have made our lives better, they’ve also opened the door to new risks. The same goes for autonomous cars.
According to the Virginia-based nonprofit, when test vehicles didn’t perform as expected, the outcomes ranged from “the irksome” (too-cautious braking) to “the dangerous” (veering toward the shoulder because sensors didn’t detect lane lines).
IIHS focused its evaluations on adaptive cruise control and active lane-keeping—each with consumer pros and cons.
Adaptive cruise control (ACC) maintains a set speed and following distance, slowing for cars ahead, or coming to a full stop when necessary. Unfortunately, it may not react to already-stopped vehicles.
During an experiment with ACC turned off and autobrake turned on, Tesla’s Model S and Model 3 vehicles (moving at 31 miles per hour) were the only two cars that failed to stop in time, embarrassingly hitting a stationary balloon.
But when the same test was repeated—this time with ACC engaged—the Model S and Model 3 braked earlier and avoided the target.
On the road, test engineers found that all vehicles except Tesla’s Model 3 failed to respond to stopped vehicles ahead.
The five vehicles—BMW 5-Series, Mercedes-Benz E-Class, Volvo S90, and two Teslas—each have automatic emergency braking systems rated “superior” by IIHS.
“At IIHS we are coached to intervene without warning, but other drivers might not be as vigilant,” senior research engineer Jessica Jermakian said. “ACC systems require drivers to pay attention to what the vehicle is doing at all times and be ready to brake manually.”
Manufacturers are careful to remind drivers that the shorthand “hands off” shouldn’t be taken literally. But titles like “Autopilot” (Tesla) or “Pilot Assist” (Volvo) can give people a false sense of security.
“They will help you with some steering or speed control but you really better be paying attention because they don’t always get it right,” Zuby said.
Especially BMW owners: In active lane-keeping challenges, the 5-series “steered toward or across the lane line regularly,” IIHS revealed, forcing drivers to override the steering support. The car failed to stay in the lane on all 14 trials.
This doesn’t spell doom for autonomous vehicles, though. The Institute continues to run tests and compile its consumer rating system for advanced driver assistance systems.
“We’re not ready to say yet which company has the safest implementation of Level 2 driver assistance, but it’s important to note that none of these vehicles is capable of driving safely on its own,” Zuby said.
“A production autonomous vehicle that can go anywhere, anytime isn’t available at your local car dealer and won’t be for quite some time,” he added. “We aren’t there yet.”
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