The Message Isn't Getting Across - Drivers Still Think Too Highly of Gee-whiz Driver Assist Features

Steph Willems
by Steph Willems
the message isnt getting across drivers still think too highly of gee whiz driver

American safety advocates have long cautioned motorists and manufacturers that poor communication leads to unrealistic expectations of driver assist systems, thus putting lives in danger. The Europeans are waking up to this reality, too.

Despite an ever-growing list of standard tech in new cars, customer bewilderment hasn’t waned, a new study shows. You’d be alarmed (but perhaps not surprised) by the number of people who think self-driving cars are already on the market.

In a study detailed by Autocar, Britain’s Thatcham Research revealed that 53 percent of British drivers believe fully autonomous vehicles are already on the market. Broaden the scope to encompass the globe, and that figure rises to 71 percent. Sketchy marketing can be blamed for much of the confusion, the company claims.

The research company recently partnered with Euro NCAP to assess common driver assist features in 10 vehicles, part of the groundwork for the European safety program’s 2020 testing standards. As the function and capabilities of driver assist systems differ greatly from model to model, drivers can’t expect the same kind of performance from each system.

Some car makers are designing and marketing vehicles in such a way that drivers believe they can relinquish control,” Matthew Avery, Thatcham’s director of research, told Autocar. “Car makers want to gain a 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.”

Some manufacturers have already received the message. Following the study’s release, Nissan claimed it would stop using certain words (“autonomous,” “automated”) to refer to its combination of lane-holding and adaptive cruise control features. Instead, the automaker will use “assist systems.” Volvo agreed to stop using the term “semi-autonomous.”

Stateside, a recent ranking of the industry’s top highway driver assist systems by Consumer Reports led the publication to warn Volvo about its use of the word “autonomous.” The automaker soon removed it from its website and press materials.

“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,” Avery said.

Given that the technology is in its infancy, there’s still bugs to be worked out. Some assist systems can’t handle sharp curves; others are flummoxed by rainy weather. It’s key to make drivers aware that these systems are fallible and can’t be relied on 100 percent, Avery said. While OEMs are moving in the right direction on their messaging, there’s still work to be done. As well, public knowledge moves at a slower pace, and myths are hard to kill.

“If they’re used properly none of them are a big concern. If you don’t over-rely on any of them there isn’t a serious concern,” Avery said of the new systems. “But people can look at the way it’s marketed, the way it’s sold, and can look at what it appears to communicate to the driver. All of that can convince the driver the system is more capable than it actually is. We think the BMW and the Nissan don’t support the driver enough, and can lead the driver into questioning is it working? And what’s the point?”

Of the vehicles tested, Avery singles out Tesla’s Autopilot as an example of a system that doesn’t let the driver make the right decisions.

“The Tesla appears to do a lot more than it should do — it’s very competent, it’s a very good system. However, it probably does too much for the driver — it doesn’t want the driver to interact with it. During the pothole test [in which a driver attempts to steer around a pothole with Autopilot engaged], the Tesla resists you, so you end up fighting the steering until it eventually lets go — it leads the driver into thinking it’s more capable than it actually is.”

[Image: Shantanu Joshi/ Youtube]

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  • Dal20402 Dal20402 on Dec 31, 2019

    No carmaker except Tesla has claimed anything remotely like "self-driving" or "autopilot." Tesla has trumpeted both from the rooftops. Consumer confusion can be laid at Tesla's feet. One more reason I'm glad I didn't give them my money when I bought an EV.

  • JustVUEit JustVUEit on Apr 13, 2020

    My last vehicle had all the assist toys: full-speed automatic braking, lane keep assist, blind-spot detection, cross-traffic alert, adaptive cruise, etc. The works. Whenever the weather turned bad all these systems would switch off. Theoretically, it is during the worst weather when I would like the assist. A second set of eyes never hurts but just when I could use that extra set they go on the fritz. The blind-spot detection was useless if the other driver coming up in the next lane is flying low under radar. Rear auto-braking is fooled by weeds in the parking lot. Adaptive cruise was useless on hill crests and curves as the followed vehicle would disappear and the system would ramp back up to its preset speed, only to have to slow down again and hard when the bogey popped back into view. The automatic high beams would blink on and off at oncoming traffic so much (oh look it's clear, oh oopsit's not) the other drivers would think that I was flashing them.Most of these is because of the limits on how good and how far away the sensors could make detections.About the only useful system was the rear cross traffic alert that would warn me when idiot pedestrians think they can walk out of a blind spot into the path of a reversing vehicle.

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