Hands-free safety? IIHS to assess semi-autonomous driving systems

The IIHS will be the first independent safety agency to test the safety of hands-free driving systems, the insurance-industry funded group announced Thursday. The IIHS said that none of the semi-autonomous systems currently offered by automakers meets the criteria to earn a “Good” rating.

The safety group emphasized that there is no such thing as a self-driving car sold today, and that semi-autonomous systems such as GM’s Super Cruise, Tesla’s Autopilot, and Volvo’s Pilot Assist lack the necessary safeguards to keep drivers from over-relying on them to drive itself. 

“The way many of these systems operate gives people the impression that they’re capable of doing more than they really are,” IIHS Research Scientist Alexandra Mueller said in a statement. “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.”

The IIHS referenced the highly publicized and fatal crashes that occurred with Tesla’s Autopilot system, even as the electric vehicle maker ramps up its $12,000 “Full Self-Driving” system. 

Cadillac Super Cruise

The rating system follows the hierarchy of other IIHS ratings for crash tests, headlights, and automatic emergency braking that are all factored in for its Top Safety Pick award, which is deemed to be the toughest safety standard in the automotive industry. Like the criteria that get tougher as automakers meet them, the new ratings are meant to encourage automakers to incorporate more safeguards into their technology.

The requirements for a “Good” rating break down into eight categories. The semi-autonomous drive system must:

– Monitor the driver’s gaze and hand position;

– Use multiple types of escalating alerts such as audio and visual to get the driver’s attention;

– Slow the vehicle to a stop and notify the automaker or emergency services if the driver is unresponsive;

– Automated lane changes must be initiated by the driver;

– Adaptive cruise control does not resume from a long stop if the driver is not looking at the road;

– Active lane control should encourage the driver to share in the steering instead of handing it off to the system and tapping the wheel to indicate alertness, as all systems currently do;

– The system cannot be used if the driver’s seat belt is unfastened;

– The system cannot be used if automatic emergency braking or active lane control are disabled. 

The IIHS admits some work needs to be done in implementing and assessing the strict ratings. It says the first series of ratings will happen this year, but the timing depends on the limited availability of cars due to the chip shortage. Initially, most ratings will likely fall in the “Acceptable,” “Marginal,” and “Poor” classifications. It remains to be seen when or how it will affect the TSP awards. 

It’s not the only change coming to the IIHS rating system. For the first time since 2003, the IIHS will update its side-impact crash test to account for the enormous weight gain of about 1,000 lb in American vehicles in the past 20 years. The tougher test will dovetail and eventually supercede the existing test by 2023, and once again raise the safety bar for a TSP award.

Meanwhile, the government-run NHTSA has been deliberating how to assess driver-assist and semi-autonomous systems in its NCAP five-star crash-test labeling since 2015, with no resolution in sight. 

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