The American Automobile Association has put driving aids under a microscope, testing them in the real world to caution drivers that they may not have the ability to control the vehicle in a way promoted by their manufacturers.
In a recent study, the AAA found that 40% of drivers believe that partially-automated systems from companies such as Mercedes-Benz, Nissan, Tesla and Volvo, have the ability to drive vehicles without driver intervention.
Tests by AAA showed the systems are not designed to take over the main task of driving a vehicle, and can be significantly challenged by real-road realities, such as poor lane markings, unusual traffic patterns, and stationary vehicles, adding that current systems, and likely future ones, are meant to assist drivers, not replace them. Part of the problem, says the association, is the name of the systems — Autopilot, ProPILOT, Pilot Assist.
“With today’s exciting advances in vehicle technology, there is a greater need for naming that clearly signals to a driver what the system does,” said Greg Brannon, AAA’s director of Automotive Engineering and Industry Relations. “Vague or confusing terminology may lead someone to overestimate a system’s capability, unintentionally placing the driver and others on the road at risk.”
The AAA tested four vehicles (2018 Mercedes-Benz S-Class, 2018 Nissan Rogue, 2017 Tesla Model S and 2019 Volvo XC40) in partnership with the Automobile Club of Southern California’s Automotive Research Center (ARC). The four had several systems that maintain speed, distance to other vehicles and lane position (adaptive cruise and lane-keeping assist).
Testers found that on a closed course, the systems mostly performed as advertised and expected (except for one challenging scenario), but once they got into the real world, their flaws became increasingly more pronounced.
“While driving on public roadways, AAA found test vehicles struggled when encountering scenarios that included moderate traffic, curved roadways and faded lane markings,” said Megan McKernan, manager of the ARC. “The systems also struggled on streets with busy intersections -- for example, Santa Monica Boulevard and Pacific Coast Highway near Malibu.”
Among the problems encountered, unexpected lane departures; “ping-ponging” within the lane, from lane marker to lane marker, caused by hugging lane markers too closely; unexpected speed changes and inadequate braking; and, following too closely
Perhaps ironically, testing showed that 90% of problems that required driver intervention were caused by the inability to maintain lane position, the one system most often promoted by the respective manufacturers. The systems performed best on open freeways or on well-marked freeways in stop-and-go traffic.
On a closed course, test vehicles effectively maintained lane position, and were able to identify and avoid safety service vehicles. However, in the scenario where a lead vehicle suddenly switched lanes to reveal a stationary one (a fairly common real-world occurrence), three out of the four vehicles required driver intervention to stop safely and avoid a crash.
“Both real-world and closed-course testing exposed separate yet equally serious limitations with these systems,” said Brannon. “It reinforces that there is still much work to be done to educate consumers on the nuances between system names and functionality and that it is much too early to refer to these vehicle technologies as automated.”