By on February 9, 2021

Screenshot YouTube

While we’re on the subject of Super Bowl commercials, there wasn’t just one, but two, that irritated me on Sunday.

This one has little, if anything, to do with politics, so you can relax and cancel out that angry email you were about to send me.

Nope, this one has to do with the misinformation circulating about autonomous cars.

Nick Jonas, of Jonas Brothers fame, was the spokesman for a spot for Dexcom, a medical-device maker. And in the spot, he said “we’ve got self-driving cars” as he talked about modern technology. The camera cuts to a man riding in a self-driving car, looking relaxed, hands off the wheel.

Nick, I realize you may have been reading from a script and didn’t know this, but we don’t have self-driving cars. At least not yet.

You cannot, as of right now, buy a fully self-driving car from ANY make. No matter what Tesla CEO Elon Musk says about Tesla’s AutoPilot and Full-Self Driving systems. There are test units out there, but nothing that you can buy.

There are, of course, cars that offer some partial self-driving. Like the aforementioned Tesla systems and GM’s SuperCruise. There are plenty of other driver-assist systems that have limited autonomy – systems that might steer you back into your lane if your hands aren’t on the wheel, for example.

But every system on the market today, including AutoPilot and SuperCruise, requires the driver to be ready to take over a moment’s notice and still be focused on the road.

There are five levels of autonomy, with level 5 being full self-driving. Our “best” systems available today are level 2. That includes SuperCruise – which can only be used on certain roads – and AutoPilot. Tesla’s FSD system is in beta testing and there’s some uncertainty over whether it’s level 2 or 3. Musk claims it will be level 5 by the end of this year. We’re skeptical.

You might think a throwaway line in an ad that isn’t about cars doesn’t matter when it comes to discussing autonomous technology. Clearly, the producers of the spot don’t think it does. That is, if they even knew we don’t actually have self-driving cars.

That is exactly the problem. Non-car people mistakenly believe that some cars can drive themselves, and that’s dangerous. All it takes is one Tesla driver who doesn’t understand his car’s tech and you can have a nasty, potentially fatal, vehicle accident.

Musk has been called out for over-selling his cars’ abilities, but it’s not just one pitchman’s fault. Nuance has been lost in the discussion. I bet the average man on the street doesn’t even know there are levels of autonomy.

So when an incredibly famous pop star says off-hand that we have self-driving cars in an ad seen by millions and millions of people during the biggest sporting event of the year, that falsehood can spread unchecked. Not to mention that the ad will be in rotation for a while, further spreading an untruth.

That makes it easy to envision a scenario in which an unscrupulous car salesman oversells the self-driving capabilities of, oh say, Nissan ProPilot, and some poor Rogue driver finds out the hard way that her car can’t drive itself.

Getting this terminology correct matters. When Liberty Mutual couldn’t talk accurately about torque in an ad a few years ago it was harmless. Laughable. “Oh, those idiots couldn’t take two seconds to Google what torque is, haha”.

But when it comes to consumer confusion about an emerging technology – confusion that could lead to safety issues – those with a platform have a responsibility to get it right.

Next time, Dexcom, pick another piece of amazing tech to make your point. May I suggest those self-cleaning cat-litter boxes?

As for everyone else, there are no full self-driving cars for sale today. Not from Tesla, Cadillac, or anyone else. And there won’t be for a while.

Stop saying there are.

[Image: Screenshot via YouTube]

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13 Comments on “Your Regular Reminder That Fully Self-Driving Cars Don’t Exist Yet...”

  • avatar

    I think you are being a little hard on the diabetes app when general motors, which is an actual automobile manufacturer, also ran an ad where a person with literal knife hands drove a vehicle with “Hands-Free” Super Cruise.

    • 0 avatar
      Tim Healey

      Ah, yeah, maybe I should’ve mentioned that. Slipped my mind. On the other hand (no pun intended), Caddy’s disclaimer was pretty clear in the ad.

      I also didn’t want to be too hard on Dexcom — the ad creators maybe didn’t know we don’t actually have self-driving cars. But that’s the problem, and the point.

  • avatar

    Tim, the problem with the self-driving car comment actually perfectly encapsulates the problem with this ad entirely. My wife uses the exact product he’s endorsing. And while it is a big help with her diabetes (Type 1, btw, the kind you get when your pancreas gives up the ghost, not Type 2, the kind you get from eating too many Twinkies), the suggestion that you never have to prick your finger again is misleading.
    You still have to check your blood sugar via finger stick in order to check the device’s accuracy once in a while and to calibrate it periodically.

    So just like a “self-driving” car… you still have to have keep your hands on the wheel, metaphorically speaking.

  • avatar

    Liberty Mutual seems to have a thing for idiotic ads. If anything, the ‘customize your car insurance’ ones are even worse than those lambasted in the Jalop article; it’s like Ford advertising cars and going, “Our cars have multiple driven wheels and come in different colors, with seats. Can other manufacturers do that?? Huh?!”


    Agreed on autonomy, too. Not only does nobody have it, nobody will, possibly forever, because solving autonomy without completely rebuilt infrastructure everywhere (including grass parking lots at the county fair, drive throughs, campgrounds, race tracks, hiking trailheads, etc) probably requires effectively solving the perception problem and implementing real general AI. And when/if we do that, autonomous cars will be the smallest of the resulting consequences.

  • avatar
    Kyree S. Williams

    The Pilot Assist function on my 2017 XC90 Inscription definitely isn’t what I would call a super robust self-driving system. It seems to get confused with sharp curves on highways, and is perfectly content to let the car drift lazily across lanes even with sharp, clear markings present. I have sampled Cadillac’s Super Cruise, Tesla’s Autopilot and Nissan’s ProPILOT, and would rank the Volvo system lower than all three of those (in that order).

    • 0 avatar

      I have a ’20, and have had no issues with Pilot Assist; it has worked without any glitches thus far, even on poor surfaces and with poor markings. The one thing I have observed is that the park assist sensors tend to get fouled-up more quickly than in other vehicles I have owned.

      Perhaps there is a dealer-installed software update that could help (beyond the updates accessible in Sensus)? Volvo seems to do a lot of year-to-year tweaks that they don’t necessarily announce, and software would be one of those areas I imagine receives frequent minor updates.

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    IIRC, the tone of the ad was similar to phrases from the past:

    “If we can put a man on the moon, then why can’t we…”

    “If we can have self-driving cars, then why do we still do finger sticks?”

    TTAC is that putting a man (12 actually) on the moon is a lot easier than producing a self-driving car, and easier than many other goals.

  • avatar

    Other than the indisposed elderly and impaired drug/drunk driving, I can’t think of a more apt precursor to devastating, high-speed automobile accidents than letting a car drive itself.

    • 0 avatar
      SCE to AUX

      I don’t believe any mfr’s legal team will sign up for the liability.


      1. Level 5 AVs will never happen, even if the technical issues are solved.

      2. Tesla’s sales of FSD will eventually be challenged via class-action lawsuit, when it becomes apparent to its buyers that their $7-9k option will never work, or never be activated. Buyers, sellers, and used car dealers have all been economically harmed by this vapor product. Tesla faces a reckoning, and it will be embarrassing.

  • avatar

    I was curious about how Dexcom’s sensor works:

  • avatar
    Arthur Dailey

    Anyone buying a base Century would I assume be near or past retirement age and still swayed by the ‘prestige’ of the Buick nameplate.

    Having driven them all I consider the Grand Prix or the Le Mans as the ‘best’ A-body of this generation.

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