Consumer Reports Offers Ideas to Make Driving Tech Safer and More Enjoyable

Matt Posky
by Matt Posky
consumer reports offers ideas to make driving tech safer and more enjoyable

Driver assistance features have started to lose their luster now that they’re starting to become mainstream. Studies have shown that they’re often less reliable than one would expect and are being implemented in a manner that may not be appealing to motorists. In an effort to tackle this problem, Consumer Reports has released detailed guidelines to car manufacturers it believes will make people more willing to engage with advanced driver assist systems (ADAS).

Born from the automotive industry’s former obsession with building fully automated vehicles, ADAS effectively covers every modern system that has the vehicle modulating its own behavior based on what sensing equipment (cameras, radar, lidar) relays to the computer. Self-driving cars failed to manifest within the time frame promised by manufacturers. However, those companies did manage to design a slew of novel features (e.g. lane keeping, adaptive cruise control, automatic emergency braking, traffic-jam crawling, etc.) that have gradually started to become standard equipment. 

Consumer Reports believes that these systems have an “interface problem” that is prohibiting drivers from utilizing ADAS to their full extent and previously launched a survey in the hopes that it might be able to come up with some solutions. Though its big concern seems to be less about the general effectiveness of the individual systems and more about how poorly they’ve been integrated into the driving experience. 

Up until very recently, safety groups have frequently recommended developing modern driving aids that are more invasive. The theory is that, by making assistance features harder to ignore, people will be more engaged. But the reality is that the cabins of many otherwise-excellent cars have devolved into a cacophony of beeps and chimes that can be downright annoying. 

"If they are not enjoyable to use in the car, if they're beeping at you incessantly, if they're doing things that are unexpected or confusing and you don't know why it's doing that, or how it's doing that, then not only is it confusing, but it can be annoying and frustrating," Kelly Funkhouser, manager of vehicle technology at Consumer Reports' Auto Test Center, told Automotive News.

Plenty of the people writing for this very website have expressed similar concerns about advanced driving aids, with your author typically defaulting to turning most of them off once their limitations have been thoroughly explored. While things like adaptive cruise control and automatic lane keeping can offer tangible safety benefits, the overall packages being presented by manufacturers still have a tendency to act up under anything other than the most ideal of circumstances. Even the best sensing equipment has a tendency to be undermined by inclement weather, accumulated grime, or unusual road markings and this can lead to erratic behavior or constant warnings that the system is struggling. 

The onboard computer might think it’s saving you by taking action or shutting down when it gets confused. But this loss of predictability is a safety hazard in itself and ultimately discourages people from using these systems. Even if you’re not someone who derives enjoyment from manipulating heavy machinery, you still probably like to feel like you’re the one that’s controlling your automobile. This is the same reason reviewers gripe about a lack of responsiveness or feedback. It’s not always about how it sullied their track day but rather concerns over how that might translate into an emergency situation where a sudden bout of evasive driving may be the only thing that prevents a serious accident. 

Incessant warning chimes, large infotainment displays with controls buried behind menus, and unpredictable safety systems can further remove people from the act of driving – potentially making modern vehicles less safe than their technologically inferior (for lack of a better term) predecessors. Consumer Reports seems to understand that and is worried that it’s all becoming too much for the typical motorist to endure. 

“Steering wheels have become cluttered with unrecognizable symbols to operate ADAS features, which drivers have to somehow distinguish and understand while they’re out on the road,” explained Jake Fisher, CR’s senior director of auto testing.

The group is making recommendations to manufacturers it believes will prevent motorists from getting fed up and simply turning these systems off. 

“We want to help automakers develop and implement ADAS that promote increased driver understanding, acceptance, and satisfaction with these systems so that more drivers will use them and benefit from the safety they provide,” said Funkhouser. 

CR stated that its report was based on extensive data taken from members who have used these systems in their own vehicles (primarily from the 2021 ADAS survey), along with its own market-wide testing of ADAS features. This includes a road-test regimen conducted on every vehicle that goes through the testing program at the Auto Test Center in Colchester, CT. 

“We viewed it all with an eye toward which systems are more likely to be enjoyed, and therefore used, by owners,” Funkhouser noted. 

The survey involved roughly 35,000 individuals driving vehicles from the 2015-2022 model year and focused on adaptive cruise control, blind-spot warnings, forward-collision warning, and automatic emergency braking, in addition to lane departure, lane keeping, and lane-centering assistance systems. The study also took into account active driver assistance, which is the simultaneous use of lane-centering assistance and adaptive cruise control.

From the perspective of Consumer Reports, the harder any of the above systems were to use, the less value they offer motorists – with survey respondents desiring more customization. Motorists wanted the ability to change when these systems cut in and how the vehicle notifies them when they do. 

“Frequent false alarms or annoying beeps can be minimized, or eliminated, by allowing the driver to make sensitivity adjustments. And the type of alert should also be capable of being tailored to the driver’s preference,” suggested Funkhouser.

Consumer Reports also recommended that manufacturers offer more information to drivers when a system cuts out. As we mentioned earlier, one of our pet peeves has been the unpredictable way some safety features fail, with the car often issuing generic warnings that leave you feeling iffy about the system in general. CR recommends automakers include easy-to-read messaging explaining why a given ADAS may have disabled itself. 

“Consumers seek out ADAS features that promise improved safety and convenience when they are shopping for new vehicles,” stated Funkhouser. “But if they don’t understand what the feature is supposed to do, how it works, or even how to turn it on or off, they may not use the feature after they buy the vehicle.”

The final piece of the puzzle was, according to CR, standardization. Much of the language and iconography surrounding these systems is unique to a given manufacturer, with some names being downright misleading in terms of the true capabilities of an individual system. While the public was wised up to some of the lofty claims being made by automakers, there’s still a lot of general confusion as to what’s being offered. Consumer Reports – along with AAA, J.D. Power, the National Safety Council, Partners for Automated Vehicle Education, and SAE International – are hoping to come up with symbols and wording the whole industry can adopt to (hopefully) avoid some confusion and improve overall safety. 

This includes agreed-upon terms for individual features (with an accompanying acronym) like forward collision warning (FCW), automatic emergency braking (AEB), lane departure warning (LDW), lane centering assistance (LCA), lane keeping assistance (LKA), and adaptive cruise control (ACC), and more. 

Though it should be noted that CR always relays the “potential safety benefit” of these systems. At no point did the group assert that ADAS guarantee a safer experience on the road, just that turning those systems off would nullify any hypothetical benefits they might offer. 

It’s a decent start. But there’s a lingering sense that Consumer Reports is missing the bigger picture here. While it’s addressing some of the confusion surrounding ADAS as it pertains to consumers, it’s not covering the possibility that these systems have major shortcomings in themselves. It also seems to skirt the issue of distracted driving created by some of the hardware found in modern vehicles. There are numerous studies suggesting that the very presence of ADAS can dull a driver’s senses and slow reaction times – with the same being true for the large infotainment screens found in most modern vehicles. This is in addition to the known shortcomings of some advanced driving features.

Perhaps determining which forms of ADAS offer the greatest safety benefit would have been a more useful endeavor than trying to standardize how they’re all being implemented. After seeing how unrealistic the industry was about automated driving, consumers deserve to know that they’re not relying on half-baked versions of failed self-driving programs. Allowing them to turn down the warning chimes on individual safety features is wonderful. But it’s pointless if the systems themselves weren’t all that effective to begin with.

[Image: DesignRage/Shutterstock]

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2 of 19 comments
  • ToolGuy ToolGuy on Jan 01, 2023

    I strongly disliked the lanekeeping 'feature' on my last new vehicle. A large portion of my Stupid Useless Commute was on a busy narrow two-lane with tiny shoulders and a practical closing speed (with oncoming traffic) of 120mph. Between the system 'nudging' me left or right when it felt like it and the distracted and sometimes angry drivers (such as me), I had strong premonitions of performing an impromptu early-morning or late-night driver-side small overlap frontal test with me as the crash test dummy. I've seen how those tests go [at 40mph], and I also have a strong recollection of that movie poster -- "No job is worth dying for" (The Firm, 1993). So I turned in my keys and walked away.

    [And yes I had other reasons for leaving. Don't give yourself too much credit, overambitious product planners. 😉]

  • Probert Probert on Jan 26, 2023

    The systems are very effective, if it isn't assumed they will do the driving. I'm not a fan of the huge screen central control, and like my EV's use of buttons. I have found the safety systems fantastic in allowing me to focus on the road, as opposed to minute constant adjustments for every incline and decline etc, and allow long trips without exhaustion. Maybe I'm lucky with my car - it doesn't nag, it sometimes politely reminds.

    With over 40,000 deaths a year in the US, the question isn't whether it is totally safe, but whether it is safer. Any stats I've seen have shown that it is.

  • Probert It's worth pointing out that this car gets this great range due to its very low cd rating. It ha a relatively small 77kw battery. This aero efficiency gives it about 50 more miles relative to the ioniq 5, which uses the same powertrain. KIA/Hyundai make really good EVs. Hopefully this becomes more common.
  • ToolGuy My Author has a high level of self-absorption (nothing wrong with that, maybe).Corey you are a Lexus buyer. Told you already but you are pacing yourself (nothing wrong with that, maybe). Keep scratching off non-Lexi from your list and you'll be fine (maybe).Congrats on the new job/new industry.
  • ToolGuy The [url=]XJ platform[/url] is super interesting to me, more so after owning one and working on it some (but not a lot, because it didn't need a lot). The overall size is almost perfect; add more space to the back seat (and carry it to the wheelbase) if we are starting over.One could argue, if one knew anything about vehicles, that the 4-door XJ is a major reason why U.S. fleet [all of everyone's vehicles averaged together] fuel economy is so bad in 2023.
  • ToolGuy ToolGuy can't solve all the issues raised here tonight, but this does remind me that I have some very excellent strawberry jam direct from Paris in the fridge.
  • ToolGuy Cool.(ToolGuy supports technology advancement, as well as third-person references)