IIHS To Create New Rating System For Semi-Autonomous Driving Systems

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The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety is preparing to rate semi-autonomous driving systems like Tesla’s Autopilot, GM’s Super Cruise, and Ford’s Blue Cruise. The new standards are expect to take effect later this year.

In an email to CleanTechnica, Joe Young, the head of media relations for IIHS, says the new safeguards will be rated good, acceptable, marginal, or poor. To earn a good rating, systems will need to ensure that the driver’s eyes are directed at the road and their hands are either on the wheel or ready to grab it at all times. Escalating alerts and appropriate emergency procedures when the driver does not meet those conditions will also be required.

According to David Harkey, president of IIHS, “Partial automation systems may make long drives seem like less of a burden, but there is no evidence that they make driving safer. In fact, the opposite may be the case if systems lack adequate safeguards.”

The need for driver monitoring and attention reminders has become apparent to many safety advocates. IIHS says Consumer Reports will begin awarding points for partially automated driving systems soon, but only if they have adequate driver monitoring systems. The new IIHS safeguard ratings will be a factor in CR’s product ratings once they are available.

IIHS — No True Self-Driving Systems

True self-driving systems are not currently available to drivers, although many vehicles on the road do have partial automation, IIHS says. The human driver must still handle many routine driving tasks that the systems aren’t designed to do. The driver also has to monitor how well the automation is performing its tasks and always be ready to take over if anything goes wrong. While most partial automation systems have some safeguards in place to help ensure drivers are focused and ready, none of them meets all the pending IIHS criteria [emphasis added].

Today’s partial automation systems — which are marketed under various names, such as Autopilot, Pilot Assist and Super Cruise — use cameras, radar, or other sensors to “see” the road. The ones currently on the market combine adaptive cruise control and lane centering with various other driver assistance features. ACC maintains the speed selected by the driver, but will automatically slow down to keep a set following distance from a slower moving vehicle ahead and then accelerate when the way is clear. Lane centering continuously adjusts the steering to help the driver keep the vehicle centered in the travel lane. Automated lane changing is also becoming more common.

Active Supervision

IIHS semi-autonomous ratings
Image credit: IIHS.

So far, even the most advanced systems require active supervision by the driver. However, some manufacturers have oversold the capabilities of their systems, IIHS says, prompting drivers to treat the systems as if they can drive the car on their own. In egregious cases, drivers have been documented watching videos or playing games on their cellphones or even taking naps while speeding down the expressway. [Or crashing into other cars at intersections.]

Deliberate misuse is not the only issue, says IIHS Research Scientist Alexandra Mueller, who is spearheading the new ratings program. “The way many of these systems operate gives people the impression that they’re capable of doing more than they really are. But even when drivers understand the limitations of partial automation, their minds can still wander. As humans, it’s harder for us to remain vigilant when we’re watching and waiting for a problem to occur than it is when we’re doing all the driving ourselves,” Mueller says.

No technology can determine whether someone’s mind is focused on driving. However, technology can monitor a person’s gaze, head posture, or hand position to ensure they are consistent with someone who is actively engaged in driving.

Reducing Misuse

The new IIHS rating system will endeavor to encourage safeguards that can help reduce intentional and unintentional misuse. They do not address other functional aspects of the systems that could also potentially contribute to crashes such as how well their cameras or radar sensors identify obstacles.

To earn a good rating, systems should use multiple types of alerts to quickly remind the driver to look at the road and return their hands to the wheel when they’ve looked elsewhere or left the steering unattended for too long. Evidence shows that the more types of alerts a driver receives, the more likely they will notice them and respond. These alerts must begin and escalate quickly. Alerts might include chimes, vibrations, pulsing the brakes, or tugging on the driver’s seat belt. The important thing is that the alerts are delivered through more channels and with greater urgency as time passes.

If the driver fails to respond, the system should slow the vehicle to a crawl or stop, as well as notify a manufacturer concierge who can call emergency services if necessary. Once this escalation occurs, the driver should be locked out of the system for the remainder of the drive, until the vehicle is switched off and started again.

The criteria also include certain requirements for automated lane changes, adaptive cruise control, and lane centering. All automated lane changes should be initiated or confirmed by the driver, for instance. When traffic ahead causes ACC to bring the vehicle to a complete stop, it should not automatically resume if the driver is not looking at the road or the vehicle has been stopped for too long.

Also, the lane centering feature should encourage the driver to share in the steering rather than switching off automatically whenever the driver adjusts the wheel, which effectively discourages them from participating in the driving. Systems should also be designed to prevent drivers from using partial automation features when their seat belt is unfastened or when automatic emergency braking or lane departure prevention is disabled, the IIHS says.

“Nobody knows when we’ll have true self driving cars, if ever. As automakers add partial automation to more and more vehicles, it’s imperative that they include effective safeguards that help drivers keep their heads in the game,” says David Harkey.

The Takeaway

Tesla has been criticized for naming its partial self-driving system Autopilot, a name that many believe gives drivers a false understanding of what the system can and cannot do. General Motors is running commercials today that celebrate the driver’s ability to remove hands from the wheel entirely. The commercial features Queen’s We Will Rock You music as if to suggest this is one of the greatest of human accomplishments since the United States put astronauts on the moon.

The trend is clear. Manufacturers are ramping up the “Our cars can drive themselves better than your cars” wars just as they promoted the horsepower and cubic inch wars of the 60s. Drivers will be told they can do all sorts of things they really shouldn’t. Whether a private institution like IIHS should become the self appointed arbiter of which systems are safe and which are not is a legitimate question. Whether federal or state regulators should be part of the process is another question that can be debated endlessly.

The latest data from Tesla shows its semi-autonomous features are getting better all the time and resulting in fewer crashes, which suggests the company is doing a pretty good job of improving Autopilot without a lot of help from regulators or ratings agencies.

Still, consumers tend to appreciate input from the EPA on driving range, reliability from Consumer Reports, and crash test ratings from NHTSA and IIHS. Perhaps the answer is, the more information is available, the better people will be able to determine which car will be best for their individual needs. On that basis, the new ratings from IIHS should be welcome news for consumers.


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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."

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