By on January 20, 2022

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]

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27 Comments on “IIHS Takes a Dump on Semi-Autonomous Cars, Then Impositions Drivers...”

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    “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.”

    Well said.

    This is why you can’t sue Tesla for a crash during Autopilot operation, but it’s also why I believe Level 2, 3, or 4 AV systems should be banned.

    • 0 avatar
      Matt Posky

      I’m usually against bans. But, as SAE Level 2-4 isn’t autonomous and has resulted in features that only get more obnoxious as they mature, I’m for pulling all this stuff out of cars until it’s ready to work or drivers can sue manufacturers for delivering an inferior product.

      • 0 avatar

        “or drivers can sue manufacturers for delivering an inferior product.”

        That will probably happen at some point with Tesla’s FSD. It’s like climbing Everest. Developing a system like FSD starts out pretty easy, but gets near impossible towards the end. People are eventually going to lose patience waiting for something they paid for and haven’t received.

        • 0 avatar

          “People are eventually going to lose patience waiting for something they paid for and haven’t received.”


          Elon Musk knows that Tesla is eventually going to have to refund a portion of all “FSD” purchases. He’s just trying to kick that can down the road as far as possible.

      • 0 avatar

        Matt, what’s confusing? It is the best solution. In fact, all vehicles (since the beginning of time) should let you know when you’re distracted, falling asleep, texting, being stupid, whatever.

        Or having a medical emergency.

        But you are confused about whose job it is to test and figure out the problems and failures of self driving systems/cruise. Yeah bonus points if they do, NHTSA too, but if the systems are used correctly, you just set it and forget it.

        You simply drive as normal (if normal is a good thing), and the system catches your errors, goofs, didn’t see the stop sign, red light, lane ends, stopped traffic, etc. Call it redundant monitoring of your driving.

        • 0 avatar

          What will be really great is when they start putting in those remote vehicle kill switches in cars that can shut them down if it senses you are impaired, or driving distracted, and since it will be an open system, third parties, either authorized or unauthorized, can access the system and remotely shut down your car. And people should not worry at all about the government abusing this, they’re doing it for our own good.

    • 0 avatar

      “but it’s also why I believe Level 2, 3, or 4 AV systems should be banned.”

      Why not any form of cruise control? At least the radar assisted one may prevent a few of the rear endings facilitated by the old school one.

      When the dust settles; a person has a certain risk tolerance. Give him an aid which makes him safer, and he responds by taking on more risk in other venues.

      Not strictly true down to every detail: Abs, stability control and (at least frontal) airbags seem to be net wins. But the general gist that traffic would be safer without lane markings and speed limits, if only cars had a sharp knife poking out of the steering column instead, is not far off.

  • avatar

    And not one mention of bringing back manual transmissions. Tragic.

    • 0 avatar

      Yep, hard to handle the jelly doughnut, the big cup ‘o Starbucks, and hold the iPhone up next to your dome whilst rowing the tranny up and down through the gears. Oh, the humanity! I might have to put some of that crap down and actually drive the car!

    • 0 avatar

      I find it tragic that no one talks about briging back A-class FM tube radios in modern cars. Its SQ is far superior of quality of soulless transistor radios you find today even in most expensive cars.

      • 0 avatar

        Once transistors had been refined to a reasonably high quality tubes became simply a way to get audiophools to pay more for more distortion

      • 0 avatar
        MRF 95 T-Bird

        When I would ride in my fathers 54 Bel Aire and 62 Impala the tube radio would take a few minutes or 1/8 of a mile to warm up and start playing. Transistor radios were phased in by the mid-60’s.

  • avatar

    There’s a lot of conjecture in this article but very little data. Many vehicles have optional assistance features – what does the accident rate look like?

    And, for starters, shouldn’t these alert systems always be on? Every time I’m on the highway there is someone going 50mph swerving in and out of their lane and when I pull up beside them are invariable on their phone. Why is paying attention suddenly such a concern – drivers are barely paying attention as it is.

    • 0 avatar
      Matt Posky

      There’s a lot of conjecture in this comment but very little data.

      Go check the links included in the article. Most of them go to relevant studies. Here’s one from AAA about how infotainment displays are distracting, something the IIHS doesn’t seem to care about and automakers have made ubiquitous:

      • 0 avatar

        Infotainment displays are not only distracting but have the added “benefit” of becoming a revenue stream for dealerships. “What, your heated seat stopped working? And the heat and A/C ceased to function? Well, bring ‘er in to the shop and we’ll investigate that large multi-function infotainment screen that stares at you from the dashboard. Might be a couple of days for Beavis to hook up the handheld and troubleshoot.”. And, “Officer, I didn’t see the lady with the stroller. I was changing through screens on my infotainment display moving from Apple CarPlay and searching for the correct screen to start the defroster and raise the fan speed and WHAM! She just came outa nowhere! She should have been watching for me.”. On the bright side, moving all the functions formerly utilizing knobs, sliders, and buttons reduced the cost of manufacture of vehicles so there’s that…

        • 0 avatar

          It’s not relevant. Screens can be a pain, but we’re talking an annoyance. Playing with them can wait until you’re stopped at a red light, on a long, wide straightaway, pulled into a parking lot or other.

          Or it takes miles of quick glances.

      • 0 avatar

        Thai has nothing to do with infotainment displays.

        • 0 avatar

          Who is talking about Thai? I made a comment on infotainment displays. One should never eat anything while driving, including Thai food as it is as much a distraction from driving as manipulating the infotainment screen to modify the heated seats/AC/heat/defrost/fan speed…

  • avatar

    ““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.””

    Tl:DR These things have been on the market for a while and there no evidence they make driving less safe. If there was we certainly would have mentioned it. But…we need something to justify our existence so this is what we’ve come up with.

  • avatar

    Sometimes when I’m allowed out of the house and I am driving I pretend I am the brains behind an autonomous vehicle. And here is what I notice:

    -> Road markings and signage in the U.S. are worse right now than at any time in my half century of driving.

    Example: Extremely faded stop sign – my sensors can’t pick it up so I blow right through it.
    Not Good.

    (Other times I pretend I am a 16-year-old with a learner’s permit trying to learn to drive in a semi-autonomous vehicle. That one just doesn’t work at all. Example: Weather conditions reduce visibility to a point where the vehicle turns control over to me the 16-year-old, but I can’t handle it either because I have no experience. What?)

  • avatar

    If the driver must always ‘pay attention’ what’s the point?? (other than enriching Herr Elon, via $12k)

    I’ll just drive like normal, pay attention, and save the $12,000

  • avatar

    The days of insurance companies giving drivers discounts for having a GPS unit in there car are over. Now they will just pay the automobile manufacturers to get live video feed of you driving and the irony is you paid extra to get that “saftey” suite. What a time to be alive

  • avatar
    Ol Shel

    Humans seek convenience and disengagement, and we fiercely resist the removal of those conveniences.

    Deaths from autonomous vehicles will soon become ‘acceptible’ because people demand these (faulty) systems. And because Musk is our new god.

    • 0 avatar
      SCE to AUX

      “Deaths from autonomous vehicles will soon become ‘acceptable’”

      Not in the US, they won’t. We don’t tend to socialize risk, in which the sacrifice of a few lives for the greater good is “worth it”.

      If we did, Takata wouldn’t be bankrupt, since their airbags certainly saved many lives… except for the 30 they killed.

  • avatar

    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? :)

  • avatar

    “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.

    • 0 avatar

      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)

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