Vehicle Automation Systems Aren’t Safe

Vehicle Automation Systems Aren’t SafeA recently-implemented ratings program from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) illustrates the safety of driving automation systems (also called automated driving systems). What does the data show? Almost all existing driving automation systems are not where they should be, and many auto manufacturers have a lot of work to do to get their systems up to par.

First, per Datamyte, an explanation of driving automation systems:

Automated Driving Systems (ADS) are advanced technologies that can control a vehicle with minimal or no human intervention. ADS uses different sensors and other related technologies to obtain a detailed understanding of their environment, allowing the vehicle to operate safely and efficiently.

With autonomous vehicle technologies, cars can now be driven with little or no human input. ADS are responsible for controlling a vehicle’s steering, accelerating, and braking, as well as perceiving its surroundings. They can also be programmed to follow pre-set routes or adapt to changes in traffic conditions.

11 out of 14 systems tested received a “poor” rating

IIHS introduced the new ratings program with the goal “to encourage automakers to incorporate more robust safeguards into their partial driving automation systems.”

“We evaluated partial automation systems from BMW, Ford, General Motors, Genesis, Lexus, Mercedes-Benz, Nissan, Tesla and Volvo,” IIHS President David Harkey said. “Most of them don’t include adequate measures to prevent misuse and keep drivers from losing focus on what’s happening on the road.”

Even more alarming? Only one of the 14 systems the IIHS tested was given an acceptable score. Two were given marginal ratings, and the other 11 received poor ratings:

  • Acceptable rating: The Teammate System on the Lexus LS is the only partial automation system tested by the ratings program that received an acceptable score.
  • Marginal ratings: The partial automation systems on the Nissan Ariya and GMC Sierra received marginal ratings.
  • Poor ratings: Alternative systems manufactured by Nissan Ariya and Lexus LS received poor ratings. Other systems that were given poor ratings include the Volvo S90, Ford Mustang Mach-E, Tesla Model 3, Genesis G90, and Mercedes-Benz C-Class sedan. Some of these auto manufacturers had multiple versions of partial automation that received poor scores.

Said IIHS Senior Research Scientist Alexandra Mueller:

The shortcomings vary from system to system. Many vehicles don’t adequately monitor whether the driver is looking at the road or prepared to take control. Many lack attention reminders that come soon enough and are forceful enough to rouse a driver whose mind is wandering. Many can be used despite occupants being unbelted or when other vital safety features are switched off.

What do these ratings mean?

The IIHS ratings indicate that auto manufacturers have a lot to do in order to get their automation systems where they need to be in order to avoid car accidents. Right now, the majority of automated driving systems appear to be unsafe. IIHS President Harkey said, “Some drivers may feel that partial automation makes long drives easier, but there is little evidence it makes driving safer.” He also mentioned that “as many high-profile crashes have illustrated, it can introduce new risks when systems lack the appropriate safeguards.”

While it is true that drivers who purchase or drive a vehicle with a partial automation system still need to remain alert and ready to take over or guide the vehicle to make certain maneuvers, the IIHS ratings show that automakers have not put enough safeguards in place, or that those safeguards are not strong enough to keep drivers alert and prepared, which can lead to serious accidents.

The IIHS points out that vehicles with automated driving systems should have safeguards in place that monitor whether the driver is paying attention, watching the road, and ready to take over if needed. However, many of the systems they tested lacked any type of forceful alert system. Some systems even allowed the driver to sit in the driver seat without a seat belt engaged while the vehicle was in motion.

The IIHS ratings program encourages auto manufacturers to make changes to reduce the risks and misuse of their partial automation systems. The good news? Some automakers are already making plans to update, improve, and change their systems’ software, which means that their ratings may go up in the near future. The IIHS notes, “The two Tesla systems evaluated, for example, used software that preceded the most recent recall in December 2023.”

What type of improvements should be made to partial automation systems?

Researchers from the study suggest several different improvements, including:

  • Improved driver monitoring: This means that automated driving systems should be able to detect whether the driver’s eyes or head is facing the road and if their hands are on the steering wheel. Automation systems should be able to recognize when a person is holding a cell phone, looking down, or even dozing off behind the wheel. The system should not work if the driver appears to not be paying attention, and if the car is already in drive, the system should send a warning to alert the driver.
  • More attention reminders: Multiple visual and audible alerts should occur when a driver is not paying attention behind the wheel. IIHS researchers believe there should be at least three alerts given within 20 seconds. If the driver does not respond, the vehicle should start slowing down.
  • Ways to ensure that the driver is involved: Another suggested improvement is to implement ways to make sure that the driver is involved in the activity of driving a vehicle. For example, turns, lane changes, and other driving decisions should be initiated by the driver. This encourages the driver to be involved and ready to take over when necessary.
  • Better emergency procedures: If the driver is not paying attention, falls asleep, or becomes unconscious, there should be emergency procedures in place to reduce the risk of accidents. The IIHS believes that the driver should have 35 seconds to respond to any alerts before the vehicle must begin to slow down. Then, the system should send a message to emergency medical responders or 9-1-1 in case there is a medical emergency. The IIHS further notes, “the driver should be prevented from restarting the automation for the remainder of the drive.”
  • More safety features in place: Says the IIHS, “There is little evidence that partial automation has any safety benefits, so it’s essential that these systems can only be used when proven safety features are engaged.” For instance, automated driving systems should be disabled if the driver is not wearing a seat belt, and if they take off their seat belt while the vehicle is in drive, the system should start sending out its warning alerts. In addition, these systems should not allow automatic emergency braking or lane departure prevention to be turned off at all during the drive.

The IIHS notes regarding its research:

Scores are awarded based on a battery of tests conducted over multiple trials, and some performance areas are weighted more heavily than others.

When possible, tests are conducted on a closed test track. For certain tests that must be conducted on public roads, a second IIHS employee sits in the front passenger seat to monitor the driving environment and the vehicle systems.

To find out the details on how the IIHS rates partial automation systems, click here.

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