Research Underscores Confusion Over Automated Driving Systems

Jeff Plungis

Consumer Reports has no financial relationship with advertisers on this site.

Consumer Reports has no financial relationship with advertisers on this site.

Automakers are marketing their partially automated driving systems in ways that confuse consumers, and that could lead to potentially dangerous situations, according to new research by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS).

Systems such as Tesla’s Autopilot, Cadillac's Super Cruise, and Nissan's ProPilot Assist can automatically steer, brake, and adjust vehicle speeds with increasing skill and limited driver input. Motorists can quickly come to trust them, but there are limits to what the technologies can do and consumers aren’t always aware of those limits, IIHS says.

IIHS asked consumers to interpret the names of these systems and respond to questions about whether they thought particular behaviors would be safe while using the technology. Most of the consumers hadn't used the particular systems; their expectations were being measured. 

The systems' names imply a much greater level of automation than they deliver in the real world, IIHS says. Tesla’s Autopilot in particular led consumers to believe that drivers “can turn their thoughts and their eyes elsewhere,” the survey found.

All of the automakers whose systems were mentioned in this study responded to questions from Consumer Reports, reiterating that their systems require drivers to remain vigilant at all times and that none of the systems currently provide self-driving capabilities.

Consumer Reports has long expressed concern about names such as Autopilot that suggest the systems are “piloting” vehicles, says Jake Fisher, senior director of auto testing at Consumer Reports. These names seem to imply that the technology can do a lot more than it can, he says.

“Between the name and the presentation, consumers can easily get the wrong idea of the capabilities of these technologies,” Fisher says.  

The systems in today’s cars are generally unable to react in unusual or emergency situations. They’re designed to be used in very limited circumstances—usually on divided highways with entrance and exit ramps, such as interstates. But because most systems are not limited to those types of circumstances, consumers often use them on other types of roads, too.

There are clearly upsides to the technology, says IIHS president David Harkey, but drivers need to really understand what they have in their car. “Current levels of automation could potentially improve safety,” he says. “However, unless drivers have a certain amount of knowledge and comprehension, these new features also have the potential to create new risks.”

As part of the survey, IIHS asked consumers to comment, based on the systems’ names, whether Autopilot and Super Cruise seemed designed to permit hands-free driving. The respondents got it exactly wrong, says CR’s Fisher. Almost half of the respondents thought Autopilot could be safely used hands-free. Only about 28 percent thought the same of Super Cruise.

The reality is Autopilot can’t be used safely without the driver holding the steering wheel, Fisher says, and Tesla attempts to train its drivers with a series of warnings. Cadillac’s Super Cruise, by contrast, is a hands-free driving system. Cadillac uses a cabin-facing camera to monitor drivers to ensure they’re paying attention to the road, but their hands aren’t required to remain on the steering wheel. The car eventually lets the driver know—through a series of warnings—that it’s time for him to take back control.

Tesla offers consumer training on Autopilot, as well as in-car instructions, both before the driver uses the system and while he's in the car, the company says. If a Tesla vehicle detects that a driver is not engaged while using Autopilot, the car will prohibit the driver from using it for the rest of that trip.

Last October, Consumer Reports released its first ratings of automated driving technologies—systems on the road today that can assist drivers without being capable of full automation. There is no fully autonomous vehicle on the road today.

In those rankings of four systems, GM’s Super Cruise came in first based on its high-tech capabilities and how it ensures the driver is paying attention. Autopilot scored highly for its capabilities and ease of use, while Nissan’s ProPilot Assist was better at keeping drivers engaged. Volvo’s Pilot Assist scored comparatively lower.

The most important issue for consumers as automated technology evolves is to understand whether they’re driving—or riding, CR’s Fisher says. As self-driving cars become closer to reality, the “levels of automation” set out by the Society of Automotive Engineers don’t convey the most essential point of who’s responsible for the driving task. It boils down to whether the car is in control or the human is, he says. And all of the vehicles on the market today require the human to be responsible for driving.  

CR reached out to the six automakers named in the IIHS research: Acura, Audi, BMW, GM, Nissan, and Tesla. Here are their reactions to IIHS's findings about consumer confusion over the systems' names.

Acura: Acura’s system, named Traffic Jam Assist, was “the least misunderstood” in the IIHS study, spokesman Chris Naughton says. “The system name includes the word ‘assist’ by intention to ensure that drivers better understand that the system is designed to assist them in driving tasks, not drive autonomously.”

Audi: The company has long advocated “for a more measured approach when it comes to vehicle autonomy,” spokesman Mark Dahncke says. Audi’s system—also named Traffic Jam Assist—is marketed as a “feature that assists the driver who remains in control.”

BMW: The company’s Driver Assistance Plus is a package of optional features, including lane keeping assist and Extended Traffic Jam Assist, spokesman Oleg Stanovsky says. Both systems use sensors in the steering wheel and driver-facing sensors to monitor whether drivers are paying attention, he says. BMW also emphasizes training drivers at the time of purchase.

A “BMW Genius” spends “as much time as needed” to explain to new owners how their vehicle technology works, Stanovsky says. “BMW has always believed that the driver is responsible for the operation of their vehicle, and while driver assistance systems help make the driving experience safer and more relaxing in certain conditions, they do not relieve the driver of their responsibility of operating their vehicle.”

GM: Super Cruise is the industry’s first “true hands-free driver assistance system for compatible highways, and not an autonomous-vehicle technology,” says Stefan Cross, a spokesman for GM. The automaker says it ensures Cadillac dealers are thoroughly trained on Super Cruise, which is currently available on the CT6, Cross says. The system will be available in the 2020 Cadillac CT5, and GM is “ramping up our marketing efforts around the technology.”

Nissan: The automaker is “clearly communicating ProPilot Assist as a system to aid the driver, and it requires hands-on operation,” says Steve Yaeger, a company spokesman. “The driver maintains control of the vehicle at all times.”

Tesla: Tesla says it provides its owners with clear guidance on how to properly use Autopilot, as well as in-car instructions, available both before they use the system and while the feature is in use. If a Tesla detects that a driver is not engaged while using Autopilot, the car will prohibit the driver from using it for the rest of that trip, the company says. “This survey is not representative of the perceptions of Tesla owners or people who have experience using Autopilot, and it would be inaccurate to suggest as much,” the company said in a statement. “If IIHS is opposed to the name ‘Autopilot,’ presumably they are equally opposed to the name ‘Automobile’.”

CR’s concern about emerging technologies and consumer confusion goes beyond just these kinds of systems, Fisher says. CR has been working with other safety groups, federal regulators, and car companies to come up with standard, easy-to-understand names for key safety technologies, similar to terms like "forward collision warning," "automatic emergency braking," and "blind spot warning."

Automakers have created dozens of brand names for these increasingly common safety features. The coalition that CR works with urges automakers to use agreed-upon names and descriptions so that consumers will be able to fully understand the capabilities their cars have—and don’t have.  



More from Consumer Reports:
Top pick tires for 2016
Best used cars for $25,000 and less
7 best mattresses for couples

Consumer Reports is an independent, nonprofit organization that works side by side with consumers to create a fairer, safer, and healthier world. CR does not endorse products or services, and does not accept advertising. Copyright © 2019, Consumer Reports, Inc.