Autopilot Danger – Studies By IIHs Suggest Driver Assist Systems by Tesla and Others Foster Confusion

Posted by

A pair of studies by IIHS finds that drivers may be put at risk by mixed messages and mixed signals related to driver assist systems.

The Merriam Webster Dictionary defines the word autopilot as “a device for automatically steering ships, aircraft, and spacecraft; also: the automatic control provided by such a device.” The name predates the sixteen-year-old company Tesla, which adopted the name for its driver assist system. One new study by the Insurance Institute For Highway Safety found that the driving public has a hard time understanding that such systems require their full attention and in the case of Tesla’s Autopilot, their hands on the wheel. The IIHS study overview states in part, “One name in particular — Autopilot — signals to drivers that they can turn their thoughts and their eyes elsewhere.”

Looking for a safe new or used vehicle? Start your search at 

IIHS polled thousands of drivers to gauge what they knew about Autopilot, Nissan’s ProPilot Assist, Cadillac’s Super Cruise, BMW’s Driving Assistant Plus, and Audi’s Traffic Jam Assist driver assist systems.

The driving public is split about 50-50 on whether it is safe to drive with Autopilot in control without using any steering input.  About one in three say that talking on a cell phone is safe while using Autopilot. About 17% consider texting safe while the car is in control and more than one in 20 polled felt that watching a video or taking a nap would be safe. However, none of these actions are safe according to Tesla itself and safety groups.

IIHS points out in its study findings, “None of these systems reliably manage lane-keeping and speed control in all situations. All of them require drivers to remain attentive, and all but Super Cruise warn the driver if hands aren’t detected on the wheel.” GM’s Super cruise has a driver-focused camera that watches for signs of distraction and disables the system if it sees a driver not paying attention.

An earlier study by IIHS proved that driver assist systems cannot safely keep vehicles in their own lanes. In that study, IIHS found of Tesla’s priciest car, “The Model S was errant in the hill tests, staying in the lane in 5 of 18 trials. When cresting hills, the Model S swerved left and right until it determined the correct place in the lane, jolting test drivers. It rarely warned them to take over as it hunted for the lane center. The car regularly veered into the adjacent lanes or onto the shoulder.”

The public’s confusion may also stem in part from the many videos and social media clips showing drivers in Teslas not paying attention and without their hands on the wheel. Elon Musk’s wife was reported by Tesla advocacy publication Elektrek to be one of the first Tesla-related celebrities to show the public the improper way to use Autopilot all the way back in 2016. Reuters has kept track of Tesla’s confusing messages on Autopilot. Bearing in mind it is now the middle of 2019, here are some of Tesla’s past driver-assist system milestones:

  • October of 2016 – Tesla begins selling buyers a “Full Self-Driving” option. The system includes hardware for future upgrades.
  • October of 2016 – Tesla CEO Elon Musk is quoted as saying that by the end of 2017 Tesla’s will be safely operated “without the need for a single touch”  of the steering wheel.
  • January 2017, Elon Musk tweets that “Full self-driving” will be available within six months.
  • December 2018, Elon Musk appears on 60 Minutes. While demonstrating Autopilot’s safety he removes his hands from the wheel startling the passenger.

IIHS President David Harkey commented on Tesla’s confusing messages, saying, “Manufacturers should consider what message the names of their systems send to people.”

And Tesla isn’t alone. The top result of a Google Search for Cadillac’s Super Cruise reads “Cadillac Super Cruise – Hands Free Driving” on which directs you to a page on the website that promises “the freedom to go hands-free.” BMW’s Driving Assistant Plus package includes a number of features it suggests “allows for ultra convenient hands-off driving.”

Audi is non-committal about the hands required, but only Nissan distinctly markets its ProPILOT Assist technology as a “hands-on driving experience.”

A second new study by IIHS looked at how well drivers understood the level of assistance they were receiving from the vehicle in which they drive. IIHS says that aside from the description or name of a driver assist system, another key way drivers know what the systems do is the driver information display. In this study, volunteers were tasked with driving a 2017 Mercedes-Benz E-Class with the Drive Pilot system. The E-Class has a display that is typical of displays from other automakers.

In the study, 80 volunteers were split into two groups. Half were given no instruction on how the Mercedes system worked, and half were provided an instructive overview of how the system operates. All were shown videos of the E-Class in operation from the driver’s point of view. The groups were then quizzed as to what the car was doing and what the displays intended to convey. IIHS found that certain key pieces of information eluded many of the participants. IHS says that it found most participants, even those with the training, had a difficult time understanding what was happening when the adaptive cruise control system didn’t detect a vehicle ahead because it was initially beyond the range of detection.

The IIHS study looked at lane-centering assist as well. It revealed that most of the people who didn’t receive training struggled to identify when lane centering was not on. In the trained group, many people got that right. However, even in the trained group, IIHS found participants often couldn’t explain why the system was temporarily inactive. In its second study, IIHS concluded, “If your Level 2 system fails to detect a vehicle ahead because of a hill or curve, you need to be ready to brake. Likewise, when lane centering does not work because of a lack of lane lines, you need to steer,” said IIHS President David Harkey. “If people aren’t understanding when those lapses occur, manufacturers should find a better way of alerting them.”

These IIHS studies indicate that the driving public has many misconceptions about how today’s driver assistance systems work and what they are safely able to achieve. The Institute also learned that even educated drivers struggle to have a full understanding of what some driver assistance systems are doing.

Top of page image courtesy of Elektrek and Youtube. Mercedes-Benz image courtesy of IIHS.