“Our message is that today’s technology supports the driver. It is not automated driving and it is not to be relied upon at the expense of driver attentiveness. The driver is in control and must always remain alert. If used correctly Highway Assist systems will improve road safety and reduce fatalities, but they won’t if naming and marketing convinces drivers that the car can take care of itself.”
Since the study has been released, Nissan has confirmed to the company that it will start calling these features “assist systems” and will stop using the words “autonomous” or “automated” in its literature. Volvo has also said it will stop using the phrase “semi-autonomous” in its marketing, admitting there is room for confusion.
Thatcham’s testing (below) also revealed that cars supposedly using the same features were inconsistent in their responses, with one not responding at all. Euro NCAP has announced that it will be grading the technology by 2020 as part of its overall safety rating for new cars.
Q&A with Matthew Avery, director of research at Thatcham
What is your main concern about today’s driver assist systems?
"If they’re used properly none of them are a big concern. If you don’t over-rely on any of them there isn’t a serious concern. But people can look at the way it's marketed, the way it’s sold, and can look at what it appears to communicate to the driver. All of that can convince the driver the system is more capable than it actually is. We think the BMW and the Nissan don’t support the driver enough, and can lead the driver into questioning is it working? And what’s the point?
The Tesla appears to do a lot more than it should do - it’s very competent, it’s a very good system. However, it probably does too much for the driver - it doesn’t want the driver to interact with it. During the pothole test, the Tesla resists you, so you end up fighting the steering until it eventually lets go - it leads the driver into thinking it's more capable than it actually is."
Should manufacturers be doing more to educate buyers about these systems?
"Manufacturers are beginning to move the right way - but we don’t like terminology such as 'autopilot', and we want a system that is very clear and cooperates with the driver. We want to keep a clear blue line between ‘assisted’ and 'automated'.
"Tesla’s over-the-air updates are very good - since we’ve started testing the system the performance seems to be getting better. These systems make driving safer than it’s ever been - but don’t think they’re going to do the driving for you. That message isn’t getting through."
Does the performance of these systems vary in different weather conditions?
"AEB systems are dependent on the weather - these systems are very robust. There will be system degradation in bad weather - but it’s not horrendous. One thing that we do find is that some of the sensors can be blocked, sometimes, well before the driver gets a warning. The driver doesn’t always get the feedback they should that the system is not working."
The Thatcham driver assist test