AAA study finds marketing muddles meaning of driver assistance systems

Breaking: People are fooled by marketing.

This might not be news to anyone following the news, however when it comes to drivers buying new cars with new technology, the misinformation can be fatal for anyone on the road. AAA has joined the chorus of safety agencies and consumer watchdog groups in urging automakers to stop using branding that overstates the capabilities of driver assistance systems.  

In a recent study conducted by AAA, drivers were up to ten times more likely to assume a car’s driver assistance features would take over in certain instances to keep the car and its occupants safe based on the name and marketing spin of the system. 

The study created two fictitious but familiar names for Level 2 driver assistance systems that contain features such as automatic emergency braking (AEB) and active lane control.

AAA called one system “AutonoDrive” and provided the 90 participants with an upbeat training session touting the capabilities and convenience of the system. The other system was called “DriveAssist,” and the training focused on the system’s limitations. After the training and driving vehicles with “AutonoDrive,” 42% of participants said its name sounded more capable than what it was, compared to 11% for “DriveAssist” participants.

“Based on data collected from our research, subtle differences in tone and emphasis significantly influenced people’s understanding of the technology and their expectations of its capability,” said Dr. David Yang, executive director of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. “These systems assist the driver and take some of the stress out of driving, but they don’t eliminate the need for drivers to pay attention.”

Furthermore, AutonoDrive participants were nearly three times more likely to feel more comfortable eating while driving; twice as likely to believe the system would reduce speeds on tight curves without driver intervention; nearly ten times as likely to think that the system will move the car when a vehicle veers into its lane. 

“Automakers are in the business of selling vehicles…But, their marketing campaigns, materials and consumer information should not mislead motorists,” said Jake Nelson, AAA director of traffic safety advocacy and research.

A German court in July ruled that Tesla must stop using the word “Autopilot” to describe its Level 2 driver assistance systems. The system has resulted in a handful of high-profile deaths of Tesla drivers using the system and not paying attention to the road. 

The AAA joined the National Safety Council, Consumer Reports, the IIHS and other safety groups in urging automakers and NHTSA to streamline names and iconography of driver assistance features. The urgency comes with many automakers including Toyota, Hyundai, Mazda, Subaru and others making features such as automatic emergency braking and active lane control standard on new cars. 

AAA also urges drivers to pay attention and learn their vehicles’ capabilities before hitting the road. Ironically, the driver assistance systems are meant to improve road safety and decrease traffic fatalities. While crash fatalities are on the decline, pedestrian fatalities reached a 28-year high in 2018, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association. 

“Words matter,” Nelson said. “We can do better by taking care to be more realistic in setting expectations for consumers such that the sale of a new vehicle does not come at the expense of safety.”

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