Autonomous systems are "lulling drivers into a false sense of security", safety tester warns

'Self-driving' systems on cars are lulling owners into a false sense of security

"It is legitimately confusing to the consumer"

THE UK’s leading car safety body has called upon the Government to change the law on semi-autonomous cars, after concerns that drivers are confused about the extent to which the self-driving systems can take control.

Thatcham Research, which conducts vehicle tests for the insurance industry, said the marketing of advanced driver assist systems on cars has been “deeply unhelpful”, and giving them names such as “Autopilot” and “ProPilot” has resulted in drivers being “lull[ed] into a false sense of security”.

Thatcham’s Matthew Avery said the marketing names were “deeply unhelpful, as they infer the car can do a lot more than it can”.

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The Road Traffic Act says that drivers must remain in control of the vehicle at all times, so even when a car can assist with acceleration, braking and steering, the driver is required to be in overall charge, alert and ready to step in at a moment’s notice, should they spot a hazard.

In particular, drivers are required to keep their hands on the wheel at all times.

A number of high profile cases suggest drivers are confused by their cars’ capabilities. In April, a British driver lost his licence after being filmed on the motorway sitting in the passenger seat of his Tesla using its Autopilot system.

A Tesla spokesperson said: “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.”

So serious is this issue of branding driver assist systems that Thatcham will now factor into its safety tests the names given to them.

The assessments, set to commence this summer with an initial batch of six cars fitted with the most up-to-date assist features, will dock points if official material such as owners’ manuals doesn’t adequately highlight what these systems are capable of doing.

But just spelling out in the manual the systems’ capabilities — and limitations — is not enough.

In August last year, Avery told “It is legitimately confusing to the consumer if you’re sold a system called Autopilot, even if it says in the handbook that you must stay in control of the vehicle, you must keep you’re hands on the wheel, a lot of drivers might not understand that it’s their obligation to do that.”

Thatcham Research does, however, stress the advancements in autonomous driving technology are steps in the right direction; confidently stating future systems will “deliver big benefits in terms of road safety, crash reduction and injury reduction”.

Matthew Avery went on to add: “Automated functions that allow the driver to do other things and let the car do the driving will come, just not yet”.

Switch to Autopilot: at the wheel of the self-driving Tesla Model S