The European New Car Assessment Program, with assistance from Thatcham Research, has completed its second report on how the electronic driver assist technologies offered by a number of manufacturers perform in real world driving. The testing and rating protocol is a little hard to understand but here is how CNET Road Show explains it.
NCAP breaks driver-assist features down into three scored categories: Vehicle Assistance, Driver Engagement and Safety Backup. The first category scores the systems onboard to see how effective they operate, and how multiple systems work together to assist the driver. The second category looks at transparency — NCAP scores an automaker’s marketing materials for accuracy, how the car monitors the driver to ensure they stay alert and how the car communicates its status with the driver. The last category is all about redundancy: It measures how a car reacts in the event of a system failure or if a driver suddenly becomes unresponsive with assist systems engaged, for example.
Cars can earn a Very Good (160 points or more), Good (140-point minimum), Moderate (120-point minimum) or Entry (100-point minimum) score. Anything below 100 points does not register on this assessment. The group then tallies a final score by taking the lowest score between Vehicle Assistance and Driver Engagement, plus the Safety Backup score.
The NCAP testing found the Tesla Autopilot suite on the Model 3 was clearly superior technically to anything offered by any other company, ranking it first among all similar system in the safety backup category with a rating of 95. But….and it’s a big but…..it rated Autopilot worst when it comes to what it calls “assistance competence,” giving it a score of only 36 — well below any of the other 8 cars tested. Combining the two scores left the Model 3 only mid-pack overall.
“The best systems strike a good balance between the amount of assistance they give to the driver and how much they do to ensure drivers are engaged and aware of their responsibilities behind the wheel,” Matthew Avery, Thatcham’s director of research. So what happened to the Model 3?
“Many aspects of the Model 3 are exemplary; its vehicle assistance is the best we saw in testing and it also aced the safety back up element,” Avery told the Road Show. “However, it achieves a ‘moderate’ rating for poor driver engagement, with a design philosophy that is very much about the vehicle doing the driving. That would be appropriate for an automated vehicle — but this is vehicle assistance. The big ‘self-driving’ sell in its marketing material, combined with the high performing assistance, encourages the driver to relinquish too much control.”
So we’re back again to the debate that has dogged Tesla since its first cars with Autopilot appeared in 2016. Does the company market the technology in a way that encourages drivers to place too much faith in how it will perform in the real world? Just in the past few days, some clueless jackass climbed into the passenger’s seat of his brand new Model X and filmed the car driving on its own. In July, a driver in Canada was arrested for dangerous driving after he fell asleep in his Model S while it was driving at speeds up to 93 mph.
In that instance, Superintendent Gary Graham of Alberta RCMP Traffic Services said in a statement, “Although manufacturers of new vehicles have built in safeguards to prevent drivers from taking advantage of the new safety systems in vehicles, those systems are just that — supplemental safety systems. They are not self-driving systems, they still come with the responsibility of driving.” (Emphasis added.)
Elon Musk continues to tout the wonders of Autopilot but he clearly does not factor in that many of his customers are irresponsible jerks. As my old Irish grandfather liked to say, “The most dangerous part of any automobile is the nut behind the wheel.”
Engadget reports the Mercedes’ GLE, BMW 3 Series, and Audi Q8 were the top rated models when the testing was concluded. While they couldn’t match the Model 3’s level of technological brilliance, NCAP said all three achieved “a good balance between offering a high level of driving assistance and keeping the driver engaged and in control of the driving task.” Engadget adds, “In this case, the NCAP is reinforcing what other safety bodies have said before — Tesla’s self-driving systems and even the name Autopilot could give consumers the wrong impression about its capabilities.”
The difference is this. Other manufacturers are offering electronic safety systems that are designed to make human drivers safer drivers. Tesla focuses on its technical geewizardry and expects humans to adapt to the best the digital world has to offer. Many humans are simply not up to the task. Does that mean Tesla should alter how it markets its Autopilot? That debate has been going on for the past 4 years and shows no likelihood of ending anytime soon. Your mileage may vary. See dealer for details.