IIHS Takes a Dump on Semi-Autonomous Cars, Then Impositions Drivers

Matt Posky
by Matt Posky

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has said it is developing a new rating system to evaluate the existing safeguards found inside vehicles equipped with partial automation. Considering how commonplace advanced driving aids have become, you might be thinking this was long overdue. However, insurers were blindly praising advanced driving suites a few years ago — until they actually started testing them in earnest.

As luck would have it, there’s been mounting research supporting claims modern automotive tech encourages drivers to tune out and become distracted. While this wouldn’t be a big deal if the relevant features all functioned perfectly, the reality is that most are far less effective than advertised and practically all of them run the risk of being completely undone by inclement weather or poor lighting. Confusingly, the IIHS believes the best solution here is to make sure systems constantly monitor the driver to ensure the driver is constantly monitoring the system.

It’s not the first time we’ve heard safety groups recommend drivers be constantly bombarded with alerts to promote safety, including the IIHS. The preferred industry ( and sometimes government) solution for distracting touchscreens and lackluster safety suites also hasn’t been to remove them until they’re redesigned to be better. Instead, companies have begun installing a series of electronic warnings that go off whenever a motorist loses focus or the system senses it’s about to fail. Some of the most advanced (relatively speaking) driving systems have even incorporated driver-monitoring cameras that track eye movements as a way to inform the car when they’re not paying sufficient attention.

Insurers and automakers have both discussed how to integrate modern driver monitoring protocols into vehicle coverage. Several have even gone so far as to launch partnerships offering customers discounts for testing out these programs.

As for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, it’s taking a multifaceted approach in rating the efficacy of semi-autonomous systems using oversimplified terms like “good, acceptable, marginal or poor.” While you might assume this pertains wholly to how well the safety system functions after some crash testing, driver monitoring is actually an essential part of the equation. The IIHS said that systems must ensure that a “driver’s eyes are directed at the road and their hands are either on the wheel or ready to grab it at all times” if a vehicle is to have any hope of achieving a good rating.

From IIHS:

To earn a good rating, systems should use multiple types of alerts to quickly remind the driver to look at the road and return their hands to the wheel when they’ve looked elsewhere or left the steering unattended for too long. Evidence shows that the more types of alerts a driver receives, the more likely they will notice them and respond. These alerts must begin and escalate quickly. Alerts might include chimes, vibrations, pulsing the brakes or tugging on the driver’s seat belt. The important thing is that the alerts are delivered through more channels and with greater urgency as time passes.

If the driver fails to respond, the system should slow the vehicle to a crawl or stop, as well as notify a manufacturer concierge who can call emergency services if necessary. Once this escalation occurs, the driver should be locked out of the system for the remainder of the drive, until the engine is switched off and started again.

The criteria also include certain requirements for automated lane changes, [adaptive cruise control] and lane centering. All automated lane changes should be initiated or confirmed by the driver, for instance. When traffic ahead causes ACC to bring the vehicle to a complete stop, it should not automatically resume if the driver is not looking at the road or the vehicle has been stopped for too long. And the lane centering feature should encourage the driver to share in the steering rather than switching off automatically whenever the driver adjusts the wheel, which effectively discourages them from participating in the driving.

Truth be told, some of these aren’t bad ideas and force more control back into the hands of the driver and I’m absolutely elated that IIHS has come to the seemingly obvious conclusion that advanced driving aids simply don’t work as advertised, making direct claims that marketing has been intentionally misleading. But its plan to launch a rating system also feels like an attempt to maintain relevance as the industry comes to terms with the new technologies.

“Partial automation systems may make long drives seem like less of a burden, but there is no evidence that they make driving safer,” said IIHS President David Harkey. “In fact, the opposite may be the case if systems lack adequate safeguards.”

“Nobody knows when we’ll have true self-driving cars, if ever. As automakers add partial automation to more and more vehicles, it’s imperative that they include effective safeguards that help drivers keep their heads in the game.”

Though the proposed safety nets are also more or less what the industry is already supporting — enhanced driver monitoring. Improvements to the systems themselves almost seem like an afterthought, though IIHS attempted to explain that.

Researchers said that the chip shortage has made it exceptionally difficult to procure enough vehicles for comprehensive testing. Despite the institute’s focus on driver monitoring, it actually needs to test vehicles to determine how each system functions. This makes your author hopeful, especially considering the IIHS has been grown fairly critical of how inconsistent advanced driving aids have been in the past. But the new rating system still appears to be preoccupied with how modern safety suites interact with the driver, rather than how well they function on their own.

Some of that will undoubtedly be good for keeping people who are mistakenly under the belief that some vehicles can drive themselves from engaging in genuinely stupid behavior. But the proposed solutions sound like they’re going to make tomorrow’s vehicles extremely annoying to drive and run the risk of encouraging data-monitoring habits I would argue have already crossed the line.

That ultimately makes the latest IIHS initiative a little strange. The group has clearly identified advanced driving aids as boasting some glaring weak points and has likewise asserted that automakers have advanced them using horribly misleading marketing. So then why is the overriding solution not to revaluate the individual systems themselves when even the lead researchers have come to the conclusion that they’re getting in the way of people’s ability to drive effectively?

“The way many of these systems operate gives people the impression that they’re capable of doing more than they really are,” said IIHS Research Scientist Alexandra Mueller. “But even when drivers understand the limitations of partial automation, their minds can still wander. As humans, it’s harder for us to remain vigilant when we’re watching and waiting for a problem to occur than it is when we’re doing all the driving ourselves.”

[Image: General Motors]

Matt Posky
Matt Posky

A staunch consumer advocate tracking industry trends and regulation. Before joining TTAC, Matt spent a decade working for marketing and research firms based in NYC. Clients included several of the world’s largest automakers, global tire brands, and aftermarket part suppliers. Dissatisfied with the corporate world and resentful of having to wear suits everyday, he pivoted to writing about cars. Since then, that man has become an ardent supporter of the right-to-repair movement, been interviewed on the auto industry by national radio broadcasts, driven more rental cars than anyone ever should, participated in amateur rallying events, and received the requisite minimum training as sanctioned by the SCCA. Handy with a wrench, Matt grew up surrounded by Detroit auto workers and managed to get a pizza delivery job before he was legally eligible. He later found himself driving box trucks through Manhattan, guaranteeing future sympathy for actual truckers. He continues to conduct research pertaining to the automotive sector as an independent contractor and has since moved back to his native Michigan, closer to where the cars are born. A contrarian, Matt claims to prefer understeer — stating that front and all-wheel drive vehicles cater best to his driving style.

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  • Kcflyer Kcflyer on Jan 21, 2022

    Can they require automakers to hook up the photocell to the automatic lights so when Buffalo drivers leave there lights set to off and drive around at night with the daytime running lights the system will save them from themselves? Can they use FSD tech to make Pittsburgh drivers maintain at least the speed limit in tunnels instead of slowing 10 to 30 MPH for no apparent reason? :)

  • EBFlex EBFlex on Jan 21, 2022

    "there’s been mounting research supporting claims modern automotive tech encourages drivers to tune out and become distracted." It's the same with so-called "safety" features like traction control, FWD/AWD, skid control, back cameras, etc. They don't actually make you safer, they make it possible for those with horrible driving skills to just drive faster when the roads are slick.

    • Kcflyer Kcflyer on Jan 21, 2022

      I am no more than an average driver I would guess. But I think your selling some of the advanced aids short. Monday we got 26 inches of snow between midnight and 6 am. After plowing my driveway I rode to work with my son in his Honda Ridgeline shod with Blizzacks. Our street was not plowed yet. So the first half mile we were plowing snow with the front of the Honda. Not a great feeling but no damage noted. We took it slow and it was dry powdery fresh snow. At the end of our street we found a neighbor had slid off the road into the ditch in a lifted crew cab chevy 2500 with 4WD. We picked him up and took him back home. Then drove the 13 miles into work. The slick "super handling" AWD and blizzacks worked so well. Only noticed the traction control light when we intentionally goosed it to check traction at low speeds. Did we drive faster than without the wizardry? Almost certainly, not fast, but faster. Never got over 45 mph even on the semi plowed roads but the truck inspired confidence. In my 95 explorer 2WD with Nokian's we would have been stuck or off the road within the first 200 yards (I'm betting)

  • Tassos Obsolete relic is NOT a used car.It might have attracted some buyers in ITS DAY, 1985, 40 years ago, but NOT today, unless you are a damned fool.
  • Stan Reither Jr. Part throttle efficiency was mentioned earlier in a postThis type of reciprocating engine opens the door to achieve(slightly) variable stroke which would provide variable mechanical compression ratio adjustments for high vacuum (light load) or boost(power) conditions IMO
  • Joe65688619 Keep in mind some of these suppliers are not just supplying parts, but assembled components (easy example is transmissions). But there are far more, and the more they are electronically connected and integrated with rest of the platform the more complex to design, engineer, and manufacture. Most contract manufacturers don't make a lot of money in the design and engineering space because their customers to that. Commodity components can be sourced anywhere, but there are only a handful of contract manufacturers (usually diversified companies that build all kinds of stuff for other brands) can engineer and build the more complex components, especially with electronics. Every single new car I've purchased in the last few years has had some sort of electronic component issue: Infinti (battery drain caused by software bug and poorly grounded wires), Acura (radio hiss, pops, burps, dash and infotainment screens occasionally throw errors and the ignition must be killed to reboot them, voice nav, whether using the car's system or CarPlay can't seem to make up its mind as to which speakers to use and how loud, even using the same app on the same trip - I almost jumped in my seat once), GMC drivetrain EMF causing a whine in the speakers that even when "off" that phased with engine RPM), Nissan (didn't have issues until 120K miles, but occassionally blew fuses for interior components - likely not a manufacturing defect other than a short developed somewhere, but on a high-mileage car that was mechanically sound was too expensive to fix (a lot of trial and error and tracing connections = labor costs). What I suspect will happen is that only the largest commodity suppliers that can really leverage their supply chain will remain, and for the more complex components (think bumper assemblies or the electronics for them supporting all kinds of sensors) will likley consolidate to a handful of manufacturers who may eventually specialize in what they produce. This is part of the reason why seemingly minor crashes cost so much - an auto brand does nst have the parts on hand to replace an integrated sensor , nor the expertice as they never built them, but bought them). And their suppliers, in attempt to cut costs, build them in way that is cheap to manufacture (not necessarily poorly bulit) but difficult to replace without swapping entire assemblies or units).I've love to see an article on repair costs and how those are impacting insurance rates. You almost need gap insurance now because of how quickly cars depreciate yet remain expensive to fix (orders more to originally build, in some cases). No way I would buy a CyberTruck - don't want one, but if I did, this would stop me. And it's not just EVs.
  • Joe65688619 I agree there should be more sedans, but recognize the trend. There's still a market for performance oriented-drivers. IMHO a low budget sedan will always be outsold by a low budget SUV. But a sports sedan, or a well executed mid-level sedan (the Accord and Camry) work. Smaller market for large sedans except I think for an older population. What I'm hoping to see is some consolidation across brands - the TLX for example is not selling well, but if it was offered only in the up-level configurations it would not be competing with it's Honda sibling. I know that makes the market smaller and niche, but that was the original purpose of the "luxury" brands - badge-engineering an existing platform at a relatively lower cost than a different car and sell it with a higher margin for buyers willing and able to pay for them. Also creates some "brand cachet." But smart buyers know that simple badging and slightly better interiors are usually not worth the cost. Put the innovative tech in the higher-end brands first, differentiate they drivetrain so it's "better" (the RDX sells well for Acura, same motor and tranmission, added turbo which makes a notable difference compared to the CRV). The sedan in many Western European countries is the "family car" as opposed to micro and compact crossovers (which still sell big, but can usually seat no more than a compact sedan).
  • Jonathan IMO the hatchback sedans like the Audi A5 Sportback, the Kia Stinger, and the already gone Buick Sportback are the answer to SUVs. The A5 and the AWD version of the Stinger being the better overall option IMO. I drive the A5, and love the depth and size of the trunk space as well as the low lift over. I've yet to find anything I need to carry that I can't, although I admit I don't carry things like drywall, building materials, etc. However, add in the fun to drive handling characteristics, there's almost no SUV that compares.