Doug DeMuro's Semi-Autonomous Systems Round-Up Is Beyond Stupid—It's Potentially Dangerous
How not to review semi-autonomous driving systems, and why Autotrader should make a retraction.
Automotive YouTuber/entertainer Doug DeMuro recently wrote the dumbest, most misguided and irresponsible article I've read since Motor Trend's foolish Audi A8 story. That's saying a lot, because the landscape of idiotic self-driving media coverage is vast.
But DeMuro's example isn't funny this time, because it's not just people's wallets at stake. It's their lives.
DeMuro just published "7 Best Semi-Autonomous Systems Available Right Now" on Auto Trader—a publication that can afford to hire someone with actual technical knowledge to cover topics outside its wheelhouse—and it's everything wrong about legacy media's auto-tech content, all wrapped up in 1,000 words of press release "journalism".
Guiding people toward spending thousands of dollars on options the author has neither tested nor understands is unethical. That people have been killed due to such misunderstandings makes it immoral. That DeMuro claims one of the systems allows fully autonomous driving is stupidly dangerous.
The bigger the audience, the greater the responsibility to tell the truth. We are what we do when it counts. Doug has millions of subscribers; laziness and/or stupidity are not excuses. Lives are at stake. It counts.
I've dismantled Doug DeMuro before for attempting actual journalism, which is not his forte. No one likes getting speeding tickets, yet people couldn't get enough of DeMuro's bucket of ignorant slop claiming Waze could replace radar detectors. Or how about the time he published his Tesla Model 3 review, before anyone else, and managed to reveal nothing of value about the car?
He and his defenders claim he's not a journalist, but an entertainer. I totally agree. DeMuro is an entertainer. His videos get millions of views. He might even be the millennial Jay Leno, twenty years before the big money and bigger car collection. The sad difference between DeMuro and Leno is that Leno doesn't pretend to be an expert on anything he doesn't know about.
This time, DeMuro's article qualifies as neither journalism nor entertainment. It's devoid of his usual humor, and there's no useful information. There is some data, however.
(Message to Doug: data ≠ information.)
Grouping seven behaviorally complex and notably differentiated semi-autonomous driving systems on a single "best" list is like saying every car with 300-400 horsepower is great, which is too stupid even for DeMuro to say. Well, maybe.
Technology is only as good as our understanding of it. Semi-autonomous driving systems are comprised of multiple safety sub-systems. How, when, and where those systems work, and whether they work in harmony, is everything.
No one has yet come up with a comprehensive method of testing and comparing the usefulness, safety, and efficacy of semi-autonomous driving systems. (I took a stab in my Cadillac SuperCruise vs Tesla Autopilot comparo, a comparison of two systems that required 7,000 words.) Mandatory criteria would have to include:
- Hardware: Does it have Lidar? How many radars? What type? What's the range?
- Software: Is it upgradeable? Does it have over-the-air (OTA) updates?
- Driver Monitoring System (DMS): Does it have one? Does it include a camera?
- Hands-off intervals: How long can you take your hands off the wheel? How long should you take your hands off the wheel?
- Effectiveness: How good is lane-keeping? How well does it prevent cut-ins?
- Comfort: Does it drive like a skilled or unskilled human?
- Confidence: Does the system inspire confidence and encourage or discourage use?
- Transition Warning System (TWS): How clear are warnings that tell the driver he must take control of the vehicle? How loud are they? How far in advance of takeover do they sound?
- User Interface (UI): How is the system engaged/controlled?
- Situational Awareness: Does it have a situational awareness display? What is displayed?
- Operational Domain: Where does it work?
Without knowing the answers to these questions, recommending any such system to anyone is reprehensible.
DeMuro's review is reprehensible. Let's get into why. (DeMuro's text in italics.)
7 Best Semi-Autonomous Systems Available Right Now
There's no doubt about it: autonomous cars are coming. And while fully autonomous cars are undoubtedly still a few years away, several automakers are rolling out semi-autonomous systems that are getting ever closer to the idea of jumping inside the car and letting it take over from there.
Half-true. Autonomous cars—also known as SAE Level 4 or 5—are coming. But WTF does "...semi-autonomous systems that are getting closer to the idea of.." actually mean?
On an engineering level, there is no reason to believe that Level 2 or Level 3 semi-autonomous systems are a developmental path to deploying Level 4 or higher. Waymo, Google's self-driving spinoff, was so skeptical of the safety of semi-autonomous systems they decided to skip Level 3 altogether.
On a functional level, driving systems are either autonomous, or they're not. Humans are either in the loop, or they're not. Humans are either responsible, or they're not. Semi-autonomy doesn't change that. Just because a semi-autonomous system is engaged doesn't make the car self-driving, and it never relieves the driver of responsibility. The notion that even the best semi-autonomy gets one closer to true autonomy is the thinking that killed Josh Brown when his Tesla ran in that truck.
The next sentence is where Doug starts to go off the rails.
The seven systems we've listed below—all of which are out right now or are coming out very shortly—represent the best in autonomous driving technology you can buy today, even if they don't quite let you sleep or watch TV while you're cruising down the road.
The title says "7 Best Semi-Autonomous Systems Available Right Now", but DeMuro states some "are coming out shortly." If some are coming out shortly, how does Doug know those are among the best? Has he driven all these systems? Has he driven any of them? There's no evidence he has, nor is there any evidence he went on the press junkets where he might have learned more about them.
Audi Traffic Jam Pilot
Expected to be out late this year or early next year in the Audi A8 sedan, Traffic Jam Pilot isn't a fully autonomous technology that's designed to be used in all cases, but it's a system that can take over driving where you (likely) desire autonomous technology the most—in heavy traffic. Functional below 60 kilometers per hour (around 37 miles per hour), the system can steer, accelerate, brake and even come to a complete stop and start up again so you don't have to constantly move on and off the brakes and make minor adjustments to the steering wheel as you sit in bumper-to-bumper traffic. No word yet on whether you have to keep your hands on the wheel (or periodically touch the wheel) in order to keep the feature active, like some other systems.
This is either lifted directly from an Audi press release, or regurgitates one.
The last sentence appears to refer to what's called a Driver Monitoring System (DMS). I consider an active system, like Cadillac's SuperCruise camera that is always pointed at the driver, absolutely essential for safe hands-off use. Omission of such is a major safety issue mitigated only by a serious Transition Warning System (TWS) and shorter hands-off intervals, which Tesla has been evolving toward since their Autopilot was originally released in late 2015.
Doug admits he doesn't know whether Audi will include a DMS, and nothing is stated about the TWS, potential intervals, or any other criteria. The most important fact—that the Audi A8 includes a Lidar sensor, which many believe to be safety-critical—is omitted. Which means we don't even know if Audi's system is good, let alone one of "the best."
BMW Traffic Jam Assistant
Much like Audi's Traffic Jam Pilot system above, BMW's Traffic Jam Assistant isn't a fully autonomous system to be used at all times, but rather a semi-autonomous feature that takes away some of the monotony of sitting in heavy, bumper-to-bumper, stop-and-go traffic. When you're in such a setting (at very low speeds), Traffic Jam Assistant can take over all steering, braking and accelerating, meaning you no longer have to actually carry out the mind-numbing tasks of stop-and-go driving. Unfortunately, Traffic Jam Assistant generally requires you to keep your hands on the wheel, even if it's doing the steering and working the pedals.
Another apparent rehash of a manufacturer press release. Sensors? TWS? DMS? To call this a semi-autonomous system in the same league as Tesla's groundbreaking Autopilot or Cadillac's brilliant SuperCruise is the height of laziness. This is glorified ADAS (Advanced Driver Assistance System). I learned almost nothing here.
Cadillac bills its "Super Cruise" system as the "world's first true hands-free driving system" on the theory that, unlike other systems, it doesn't really require driver intervention: According to Cadillac, if you drive on the brand's mapped routes, you can let the system drive your vehicle for hours on end without a problem—and without ever tapping the steering wheel to let the system know you're there. Unfortunately, the caveat is that you have to drive on Cadillac's mapped routes for the system to work—and right now, Cadillac has mapped a mere 130,000 miles of highways in the United States and Canada, far short of the 4.8 million total miles of road in the two countries. Regardless, the system is impressive, and it's available right now in the Cadillac CT6 luxury sedan.
SuperCruise is impressive, but you wouldn't know why from this paragraph, which bizarrely omits the presence of Cadillac's unique advantage: the DMS, which uses a camera to disengages the system if the driver turns his head too far off-axis. SuperCruise is the only such system on the market to include this, and is theoretically light-years ahead of everyone else in terms of absolute safety (with a caveat). It's outrageous to simply lump SuperCruise on a list with most of the others that are primitive by comparison.
Nissan's comprehensive ProPilot driver assist system is available on the new 2018 Nissan Leaf and is coming to the 2018 Infiniti Q50 sedan, which goes on sale shortly. Unfortunately, it's probably the least autonomous of all the systems on this list: Like many adaptive cruise control systems, it can accelerate and brake for you, based on whatever speed you set and the actions of the vehicle ahead. Unlike many adaptive cruise control systems, it can also steer for you—but there's a catch: You have to keep your hands on the steering wheel, basically, at all times. Remove your hands from the wheel for more than even just a few seconds and the car sounds warning chimes to remind you to get your hands back in place. The system also keeps you centered in your lane. It's not fully autonomous, but we did sample a totally self-driving Infiniti Q70 and it navigated the real world in a point A to point B and back demo with no issues and no human intervention. Outside the U.S., the Nissan Serena (a minivan) gets a more comprehensive ProPilot system so, clearly, a self-driving Nissan is headed our way in the not too distant future.
I've also used the Nissan/Infiniti ProPilot system. It's fine. It's a competently executed ADAS suite, which doesn't really qualify as a semi-autonomous driving system. It uses a two-stage engagement interface, similar to Volvo Pilot Assist and Mercedes Drive Pilot, which is either annoying or sucks, depending on your point of view. You activate the system, which then enters passive mode, and it decides when and where to engage. The situational awareness display is almost useless, just like everyone else's save Tesla's. It requires two lane markings to engage, as opposed to Tesla, which needs only one.
Strangely, Doug says, "we did sample a totally self-driving Infiniti Q70 and it navigated the real world in a point A to point B and back demo with no issues and no human intervention." So, Infiniti gave him a ride in a Level 4 Q70? What does this have to do with the ProPilot semi-autonomous system? I have no idea.
This next paragraph is so dumb I'm bolding the worst parts.
Mercedes-Benz Drive Pilot
The latest Mercedes-Benz E-Class debuts with a new system called Drive Pilot, which allows fully autonomous driving—and even lane changes—at virtually all speeds when weather and road conditions are right.
WRONG. WRONG. WRONG. DRIVE PILOT DOES NOT ALLOW FULLY AUTONOMOUS DRIVING.
Mercedes-Benz rolled out a campaign suggesting, erroneously, the 2017 E-Class was self-driving, and then pulled it after they were eviscerated in the media.
Here's the a screen capture of the story I wrote explaining this in September of 2016:
"Unfortunately, like all largely autonomous systems except the aforementioned Cadillac Super Cruise, you can't simply remove your hands from the wheel and let the car do the work—regulations prohibit that—but you can keep your hands off the wheel for longer than with some other systems. Some tests say it's possible for up to 45 seconds."
So, after calling the car fully autonomous, Demuro then says it's only "largely autonomous," and that you can only take your hands off the wheel for 45 seconds, referring to "some tests."
Also, if "regulations prohibit" removing your hands from the wheel and letting "the car do the work," then why can Cadillac's system do so? He states both ideas, seemingly contradictory to one another, in the same sentence, without ever attempting to resolve them. Are there editors at Autotrader? What about fact-checkers?
Tesla's Autopilot system is the closest thing to autonomous technology, aside from Cadillac's Super Cruise. When Autopilot first debuted, drivers could leave their hands off the steering wheel for long periods of time—but government regulations have limited that capability, and drivers now must make contact with the wheel every minute or two to let Autopilot know the driver hasn't climbed into the back seat to take a nap. Still, when your hands are off the wheel, Autopilot does it all: It can slow down, speed up, change lanes and negotiate most corners and curves, even when road lines aren't tremendously reliable.
To be honest, after the Doug's outrageous claim about Mercedes' self-driving E-Class, it was hard to continue reading. At least he gets this one partially right. Autopilot is up there with SuperCruise as the best system, but he fails to point out that there are now multiple versions of Autopilot in the field, each with very different behaviors:
- the first-gen AP1 S/X models
- the very different AP2 S/X versions
- the AP2 in the Model 3—the user interface for which I consider sufficiently different to be considered a different system
Doug has driven all these cars. Did he notice the differences? Apparently not.
Also, I'm unaware of any American regulations that govern hands-off intervals, but I could be wrong. Tesla's big Autopilot update that added a three-strikes-you're-out disengagement rule was implemented voluntarily.
Volvo Pilot Assist
Volvo's Pilot Assist feature works much like Tesla's Autopilot and Mercedes-Benz's Drive Pilot: It boasts largely autonomous driving, but it still requires occasional inputs from the driver so the system can verify the driver is still in place. But notice the name. Volvo says this is not an autonomous system, but more of a driver's aide. The feature, which is available on Volvo's S90 sedan, V90 station wagon and XC60 crossover, will steer around most gradual bends and can speed up or slow down the vehicle based on the actions of cars in front.
I drove the excellent S90 5,000 miles across Europe and the USA in 2016. Pilot Assist is not "largely autonomous driving." And the system works nothing like Tesla's Autopilot. It has a two-stage engagement system similar to Mercedes Drive Pilot, but that's where their similarities end. This is competent ADAS, similar to Nissan ProPilot.
It's seems to me that Doug DeMuro knows pretty much nothing about systems. In fact, I'm not even sure he's fully read the various press releases, given that he omits information that educated readers might use to make an informed buying decision.
Strangely, DeMuro omits the Honda/Acura system which George Hotz uses in an ILX as Comma.ai's self-driving development platform. It's easily as good as the Nissan and Volvo systems.
@Autotrader: Doug DeMuro's "reporting"—especially on Drive Pilot—is unconscionable. You should correct the Mercedes "fully autonomous" section immediately, if not retract the whole story.
@Doug: You're a wonderful entertainer. Stick to that, before someone gets hurt.
Alex Roy is Editor-at-Large for The Drive, Host of The Autonocast, co-host of /DRIVE on NBC Sports, author of The Driver, has broken numerous endurance driving records in Europe & the USA in the internal combustion, EV, 3-wheeler & Semi-Autonomous Classes, including the infamous Cannonball Run record. You can follow him on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.