Britain’s leading vehicle safety organisation has called upon the Government to change legislation regarding semi-autonomous vehicles. This comes after apprehension over drivers becoming confused about the precise extent to which current autonomous driving systems can actually take control of a car.
Thatcham Research, a firm that carries out vehicle tests for the car insurance industry, described the marketing hype over high-tech driver-assist systems on modern cars as ‘deeply unhelpful’. It said referring to such systems as ‘ProPilot’ or ‘Autopilot’ has lulled British drivers into a false sense of security.
Matthew Avery, a spokesperson for Thatcham’s, described this type of branding as ‘deeply unhelpful’ and said they incorrectly created the perception that the car can do much more than it actually can.
According to the Road Traffic Act, a driver has to remain in full control of a car at any specific moment. So even if that vehicle can assist with steering, braking or acceleration, the driver must always stay in charge, attentive and ready to act within a second if he or she spots a dangerous situation.
Recent headlines suggested that drivers are at this stage not always sure what these cars can actually do and what they can’t. Two months ago a British driver’s licence was suspended for 18 months after he was videotaped on the highway relaxing in the passenger seat of his Tesla while it was on Autopilot.
A spokesperson for Tesla stated: “When using Autopilot, drivers are continuously reminded of their responsibility to keep their hands on the wheel and maintain control of the vehicle at all times. Tesla has always been clear that Autopilot doesn’t make the car impervious to all accidents and the issues described by Thatcham won’t be a problem for drivers using Autopilot correctly.”
This branding issue has become so serious that Thatcham will in future factor it into the safety tests it carries out. These tests, scheduled to start during the summer months with a batch of six vehicles equipped with the latest driver-assist features, will deduct points if the official material (e.g. the car’s owners manual) does not properly spell out what driver-assist systems can do, and what not.
Merely spelling out the capabilities in the manual is, however, not quite sufficient.
In August 2017 Avery said to a well-known British driving website that it was genuinely confusing to the end user if they were sold a system labelled as ‘Autopilot’, even if the handbook stated that the driver has to remain in full control of the car, with his or her hands always on the steering wheel. Many drivers will possibly not grasp that they were legally obligated to do exactly that.
Thatcham Research concedes that recent advances in self-driving systems are steps in the right direction. It is confident that the systems of tomorrow will bring huge benefits in terms of crash reduction, road safety and injury reduction.
Matthew Avery concluded: “Automated functions that allow the driver to do other things and let the car do the driving will come, just not yet”.
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