Carmakers Sell ‘False Bill of Goods’ on Automated Driving Tech: AAA

When it comes to modern driving aids, AAA says "spotty performance isn’t the exception—it’s the norm."

Despite what certain automakers and their marketing lingo might lead you to believe, self-driving cars simply do not exist. Instead, many modern cars have active safety features and advanced driver assistance systems that do exactly that—assist drivers whenever possible. However, according to a recent safety test from AAA, many of these systems are prone to failure and cause distrust among Americans.

AAA conducted this test with three very different vehicles and used each of their brand-specific advanced driver aids: A 2021 Subaru Forester with the automaker’s Eyesight suite, a 2021 Hyundai Santa Fe with Highway Driving Assist, and a Tesla Model 3 with Autopilot.

Each of these is designed to automate the more mundane tasks of driving, all in the name of making highway cruising easier. They can follow the car ahead of them in the same lane, they can avoid cars merging into their lane, brake when the lead car brakes, and maintain speed behind a lead car. However, AAA found that throwing even a small monkey wrench into those situations by adding different but common dynamic variables can result in a potentially fatal crash.

To assess each system, AAA conducted a series of tests on a closed course using a foam hatchback and a dummy on a bicycle.

During the braking test, each vehicle correctly applied the brakes when approaching a slower-moving foam car; however, that was only the case when it was in the same lane, going in the same direction. When the foam car was only partially in the lane, all three cars crashed into it, with just one of the test cars drastically slowing down first. AAA didn’t mention which car it was.

When AAA steered the dummy cyclist across the lane in front of the test vehicles, a crash occurred five out of 15 times. Call me crazy, but a 33 percent success rate doesn’t sound great.

AAA feels that, while advanced driver assistance systems have come a long way, they still have a long way to go before they can be regularly relied on.

“The bottom line is that the crashes that occurred during AAA testing could very easily become deadly if they happened in a real-world setting—which they commonly do,” said Skyler McKinley, regional director of public affairs for AAA. “Two things can be true at once: Driver assistance technology has gone a long way in improving safety, but it’s still too imperfect to rely on. That’s why it’s so important for drivers to understand their vehicle’s limitations and stay fully engaged while behind the wheel.”

Due to the inconsistency of these systems, few Americans trust them. According to AAA surveys, 85 percent of Americans are weary or flat-out afraid of driver aids such as the ones in this test. While many customers appreciate some safety systems—such as automated emergency braking, which applies the brakes if it detects the car approaching something too quickly—Americans don’t seem ready for cars to drive themselves just yet. At least, not most of them.

“Consumers have consistently been sold a false bill of goods when it comes to new car tech,” McKinley said. “It’s hard to convince folks about future technology if they don’t trust the present, and they can’t trust the present when current technology doesn’t perform safely at all times. Over the years, our testing has repeatedly shown that spotty performance isn’t the exception—it’s the norm.”

To help automakers earn the trust of consumers, AAA has some suggestions for system improvements. For instance, it says automakers should implement more driver monitoring, to make sure drivers are paying attention to both the road and the car’s alerts. In some automakers’ defense, many of them do have such safety functions. Mercedes-Benz, BMW, General Motors, and a few others have cameras and sensors that will make sure the driver is focused and facing forward while their driver assistance systems are engaged, and will alert the driver if it notices otherwise.

Even with those safety measures, though, AAA encourages owners to learn as much as they can about their cars’ driver assistance systems. Even in 2022, it’s a good idea to read the car’s manual and ask a dealer for a demonstration before using them.

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