By on October 1, 2020

The European New Car Assessment Programme (Euro NCAP) has finished a study on driver assistance systems and issued some moderately surprising results. While nowhere near comprehensive enough to be the ultimate authority on self-driving cars, it did give us a taste of Europe’s new grading system and how it will be implemented as more vehicles are tested. For now, NCAP is focused on a handful of models ranging from the pedestrian Renault Clio to the much more expensive Mercedes-Benz GLE.

While one might expect the moral of the study to be roughly ‘you get what you pay for,’ the reality seemed much more complicated after the Tesla Model 3 ended up in sixth place out of a possible ten. Anybody who has ever used Tesla’s Autopilot will tell you it’s probably the most impressive advanced driving suite currently on sale. This author certainly would before the smile dissolved and he was forced to you that it (and other) driving assistance packages are horrible, misleading inventions that need to be gotten rid of as soon as possible.

Alright, that’s moderately hyperbolic but faintly reminiscent of what Euro NCAP decided in its own research. There are just too many gaps in the technology today for it to be reliably counted on by anyone and some of the best systems have the unfortunate trait of being extra good at lulling drivers into a false sense of security. There are numerous studies examining this phenomenon and countless anecdotes on this very website where one of us will ultimately include a line where we turn the system off as the frustrations mounted.

The fact of the matter is that driver assistance packages rarely function the same between brands and, based on multiple assessments from AAA, don’t always pass muster. That’s not really a big deal when someone is relying on them as their last line of defense but many people mistakenly presume their onboard computers are bulletproof  especially in relation to the marketing strategies of certain automakers. I cannot tell you the number of people that still think Tesla’s Autopilot offers legitimate vehicular autonomy on par with the hovercrafts found in films like Blade Runner.

However, I do know why they feel that way. Tesla and its acolytes make Autopilot sound much more advanced than it actually is and it’s more than enough to fool even those who are relatively well informed about cars.

Euro NCAP took that into account, giving the Model 3 top marks for Vehicle Assistance (how good the suite works overall) and Safety Backup (how adept the car is at mitigating at system failures). But it failed miserably in terms of Driver Engagement, which calculates how much the vehicle demands the driver remain in the game to continue using driver assistance packages and takes into account how accurately the manufacturer markets its true capabilities.

Thatcham Research, which helped NCAP in its assessment, noted that the best systems strike a healthy balance between the amount of assistance offered to the driver and how much they do to ensure nobody falls asleep behind the wheel. But that results in interior camera systems that constantly track the driver’s face and incessant dinging reminding you to stop looking out the side window and place your hands back on the damn wheel. Undoubtedly safer, but hardly what one would want from a feature that’s biggest selling point is supposed to be peace of mind.

Those metrics left the Model 3 receiving a Vehicle Assistance score of 87 while its Safety Backup features garnered a staggering 95 points. But Autopilot’s Driver Engagement score dropped its final rank significantly with just 36 points  the lowest of any system tested. By contrast, luxury German brands fared quite a bit better by having more consistent scores across the board, even if Autopilot technically beat them in every category but Driver Engagement.

It also allowed the Ford Kuga (aka the Escape) to best the Model 3. While we’ve been fairly impressed with the strides Blue Oval has made in regard to its advanced driving aids of late, it’s systems are not on par with what’s currently offered by Tesla. Frankly, neither are the systems offered by the Germans  some of which can be quite herky-jerky. But they’ll keep better tabs on the driver, which was enough for Euro NCAP.

While yours truly is of the mind that none of these features should have ever left the factory before they had been tested into oblivion and resulted in cars operating at SAE Level 3 or better, the industry is a competitive place and there are a lot of people that want self-driving vehicles now. Automakers know they can market what they have currently as basically self-driving and then clarify that isn’t the case in the owner’s manual to avoid any legal troubles. That makes NCAP’s new Assisted Driving Grading a relatively handy tool in disseminating fact from fiction.

But it doesn’t address the core problems, which is why I tend to test these systems out in the quest for knowledge before ultimately deciding to deactivate them. They’ve simply acted too unpredictably in the past and I have no desire to use the road if I am not ready to give it my full attention. Does that mean everyone else should do the same? Not necessarily. While advanced driving aids still seem quite clumsy and prone to encourage distractions, I cannot say they won’t be helpful in saving perpetually inattentive drivers from disaster. We’ll just need to wait until they’ve improved some more before anyone around here is willing to commit to praising them outright.

If you’d like to examine Euro NCAP’s new Assisted Driving Grading, scores for 2020 model year vehicles are available here. Meanwhile, the long-form version of how it tabulates those scores are available here.

[Images: Euro NCAP]

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13 Comments on “Euro NCAP Develops Assisted Driving Assessment, Bashes Autopilot...”

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    Good summary – agreed on all points.

    The “Wild West” nature of these systems is due to the low bar for SAE Level 2 – which doesn’t even have to work – and the mfrs’ (Tesla, primarily) misleading claims. Not to mention countless YouTube clowns who deceive the weak-minded into believing these systems are magic.

    I like the idea of some standardized comparison studies. But it won’t be long before they are treated like JD Power ratings or CR tests.

    • 0 avatar

      “Not to mention countless YouTube clowns who deceive the weak-minded into believing these systems are magic.”

      Manufacturers need to start telling Youtubers and other auto reviewers that if they intentionally misrepresent these systems then they are off the gravy train.

      Of course that assumes in the first place that the manufacturers don’t want the “Regular Bros House of Geese FastLane Pipes VirginSpeed Motoring Reviews featuring Doug deMuro” to misrepresent their software as magic.

  • avatar

    I think autonomous vehicle technology development can be compared to fusion and cold fusion research. Right now, we’re in the Pons and Fleischmann stage. With A/V technology, we’ve got something that seems to work, but really doesn’t. Fusion may yet work, but there has been a lot of research and there still is a long way to go. With A/V technology, most researchers have yet to realize they’re on the wrong track. They’re still at the Pons and Fleischmann stage. Some of us think we know the right direction, but it’s going to be a long haul. Something not attractive to a large corporation trying to make quick profits. It also takes a very rare skillset in a world where most software developers are used to von Neumann architecture and probably not even aware of other technologies.

    • 0 avatar

      I just read on Google news that nuclear fusion reactor will be here as soon as in 2025.

      • 0 avatar

        Everything you ever wanted, will always be here as soon as some time in the future.

        Fully autonomous driving, OTOH, will only work in venues where the last remaining steering wheel, has finally been pried from the cold, dead hands of the last remaining holdout human driver.

  • avatar

    I get why “Driver Engagement” is an important rating category. The more one uses these systems, the more one becomes dependent upon them. Soon, you change lanes if the BSM doesn’t beep, don’t press as hard on the brake pedal coming up to a stop, and back right out of the drive if the cross traffic monitor doesn’t alarm. Then comes the day when 99.9% accuracy isn’t good enough and you should have been paying more attention…..

    • 0 avatar

      Exactly. The technology is *designed* to fill in the gaps for “perpetually inattentive drivers”, which it may to some extent do, but the *effect* is to reduce the attentiveness of those who would normally drive in a mindful manner.

      Once again, I lament the inability to use italics or bolding in the comment section.

    • 0 avatar
      SCE to AUX

      Good, brief article on “Five Nines” as it relates to safety:

      An autonomous vehicle would need to be way better than this.

  • avatar

    It’s not a salesman’s job to sell you what you need. It’s to sell you what his employer has on the shelf. It’s your job to determine whether that meets your needs and to tell the salesman, “Sorry. No sale.” if it doesn’t. The latter is the situation with autonomous driving. The systems are better than ever but still not good enough.

    • 0 avatar
      Steve Biro

      Kandahl… while I agree with you, here’s the problem for me: Not enough people are saying “no” to this technology, which is being made standard in more and more vehicles – even base versions. So, while I can hold off buying a new car for a while, eventually I’ll have to cry “Uncle!”

      And the thing that kills me is, most cars won’t allow you to completely disarm all of the driver assistance technology – particularly automatic braking. Some will allow you to turn it off – but then it automatically turns back on the next time you start the car. Has anyone had any success pulling fuses on these systems yet?

      Even so, you have to pay for it when you buy the car – and pay for it again if you have an accident and the car or truck needs repair. That $250 windshield is now $1250. Plus, even if you disarmed all of this crap, how difficult do you think it would be for a reasonably competent lawyer to convince a simple-minded jury that the accident was your fault – even if the other guy was drunk and blew a stoplight before broadsiding you?

      It’s the world we live in.

  • avatar

    A large misgiving of mine is the mechanics behind how the system works and losing track of what does what and when. My car with radar cruise and camera based something or other regularly gets dazzled when heading directly toward the sun. A nice warning message pops up saying that the systems are disabled and to see the dealer if it doesn’t self-correct within an undefined period of time. This doesn’t necessarily bother me because I don’t rely upon the to drive the car, but I’d imagine a fully autonomous/semi-autonomous car would be a mess with systems that are easily dazzled. Not being a designer of such things, I don’t know whether the programming and physical construction are altered depending on how each system is meant to operate.

    The car’s eyes and ears have to be a major part of the equation.

  • avatar

    I’ve been waiting for IIHS to get the balls to start doing this. Start punching folks in the wallet with insurance ratings and the OEMs will react quick

  • avatar

    From the UNECE:

    Euro NCAP is a private consumer test organization, based in Leuven, Belgium, partly funded by European governments
    • Euro NCAP was established in 1997
    • Euro NCAP tests are optional,
    one does not need to have a valid star rating to be able to sell a vehicle in Europe
    • Euro NCAP stars are intended to be consumer information,
    there is no other implication from the test results.

    So Euro NCAP is more like the IIHS than the NHTSA, which is a US government organization. The private NCAP bodies all around the world are more like trade groups with government grants. Euro NCAP is cagey on its website and doesn’t mention who owns the outfit, trying to give the impression it’s official, when as you can see from the UN Harmonization of Vehicle Regulations Terms of Reference above, all its reults have no official weight whatsover. Max Mosley has his claws into Global NCAP, for instance.

    Anyway, so Tesla is way down the Euro NCAP list due to its very half-hearted approach to keeping the human driver awake when AutoPilot is engaged. What a surprise.

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