The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) is developing a new ratings program that evaluates the safeguards that vehicles with partial automation employ to help drivers stay focused on the road. These will be rated good, acceptable, marginal or poor, and the group expects to issue the first set of ratings in 2022. The precise timing is uncertain because ongoing supply chain problems in the auto industry have made it more difficult to obtain vehicles for testing, according to IIHS.
“Partial automation systems may make long drives seem like less of a burden, but there is no evidence that they make driving safer,” says IIHS President David Harkey. “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. Consumer Reports has announced it will begin awarding points for partially automated driving systems, but only if they have adequate driver monitoring systems, and will factor in IIHS safeguard ratings once they are available.
Despite misleading messaging from some manufacturers, for now, at least, self-driving cars are not available to consumers. What many vehicles on the market do have is partial automation. The human driver must still handle many routine driving tasks that the systems aren’t designed to do. While most partial automation systems have some safeguards in place to help ensure drivers are focused and ready, none of them meet all the pending IIHS criteria.
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 IIHS reports that even the most advanced systems require active supervision by the driver. However, some manufacturers have oversold the capabilities of their systems, prompting drivers to treat the systems as if they can drive the car on their own. 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,” Mueller says. “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.”
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.
The new IIHS ratings aim 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.