The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and Consumer Reports are pushing for safeguards that go further than what the auto industry and regulators currently ask of the new technologies.
Driver-assist technologies like Autopilot, GM’s Super Cruise and Ford BlueCruise, which combine active cruise control with lane-keeping assist features, have become increasingly common on vehicles in recent years. They can often steer cars in their lane, keep up with traffic and sometimes respond to traffic signs and signals. The technology can make driving more pleasant, but they also have limitations like contributing to distracted driving, which can turn deadly. New risks emerge once a task is automated, and they may offset dangers that the automation removed.
“There is no evidence that [driver-assist systems] make driving safer,” IIHS president David Harkey said in a statement. “In fact, the opposite may be the case if systems lack adequate safeguards.”
Research has shown drivers are more distracted while using Tesla Autopilot. Tesla has published data showing its crash rate is lower when its drivers are using Autopilot. However, critics caution that driver-assist systems like Autopilot are more likely to be used on highways where crash rates are already much lower, and a comparison of highway driving to all other types, including urban environments, is not valid.
Drivers need to be alert and prepared to take full control of their vehicle at any moment when using systems like Autopilot. So automakers have introduced driver monitoring systems to help keep people focused on the road. But there are no regulations for those systems, leaving consumers with a hodgepodge of varying and unverified claims around capability and safety.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, asked to comment on Thursday’s news, said it was “actively researching driver monitoring technologies to establish benchmarks and collect data about driver behavior that may be used to inform potential future actions.”
The Alliance for Automotive Innovation, which represents nearly all the largest automakers except Tesla, released principles for driver-assist systems last April. The principles call for automakers to consider using a camera to monitor drivers, but they aren’t required.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety will only give a “good” rating to systems that make sure the driver’s eyes are on the road, and their hands are either on the wheel or ready to grab it at anytime. It said that none of the driver-monitoring systems in vehicles today meet its pending criteria. (It’s yet to finalize its rating system.)
The organization also said that for systems to get a good rating drivers will need to receive multiple alerts if they look away from the road or have gone too long without steering the vehicle. It also says that drivers should confirm or initiate any lane changes, which is not something all automakers require. Tesla’s “full self-driving” beta includes automated lane changes, and Autopilot drivers can change a default setting so they don’t have to confirm automated lane changes.
The driver-monitoring systems from Ford and General Motors use an in-car camera to monitor drivers and make sure they’re watching the road. But the systems don’t meet IIHS standards because they fail to ensure that a driver isn’t holding something like a cellphone in one hand and coffee in another, which may make grabbing the wheel at a moment’s notice challenging.
Ford did not respond to a request for comment. GM declined to comment on monitoring a driver’s hand position.
Tesla measures torque on the steering wheel to ensure that drivers are engaged while using Autopilot. Its vehicles also sometimes sound audible alerts to keep drivers engaged. Tesla isn’t broadly using its in-car cameras to monitor drivers, but has begun to do so with drivers using the beta version of its “full self-driving” technology, which only a small percentage of its owners have access to.
Consumer Reports said it will reward automakers in its ratings whose driver-monitoring systems effectively encourage safe driving. It’s tested the systems from five automakers: BMW, Ford, GM, Subaru and Tesla.
But it will only give extra points to Ford and GM when it releases it 2022 top picks.
“Cruise and now Ford’s BlueCruise both have the right combination of helping drivers enjoy the convenience of automation while verifying that they’re keeping their eyes on the road,” Jake Fisher, senior director of Consumer Report’s auto test center, said in a statement.
Starting in 2024, Consumer Reports will penalize vehicles that lack adequate driver-monitoring systems. It criticized Tesla and BMW because their driver-assist systems could be active when the in-car camera was covered. Subaru risks losing points because the camera in its driver-monitoring system can be turned off.
Consumer Reports said it may penalize automakers for privacy issues. Most automakers say they don’t transmit in-cabin data or video from an in-car camera outside the vehicle, but Tesla leaves the possibility open. If there’s a crash and a driver enables data sharing the car will share image and video with Tesla, according to the Model 3 owner’s manual.
Tesla did not respond to a request for comment.