In-car technology is baffling drivers

Blog post posted on 18/02/20 |

In-car technology has proved to be a controversial topic of conversation, with car manufacturers increasingly offering more advanced driving systems to motorists that aren’t always aware of how the technology should be used. IAM RoadSmart’s road safety expert, Tim Shallcross, explains his concerns about the impact that this technology can have on a motorist’s ability to drive safely.

A study carried out by Thatcham Research has found one in five British motorists believe that a car marked as being capable of automatic steering, braking and acceleration allows them to “sit back and relax and let the car do the driving”. Almost three quarters of drivers also think they can purchase a self-driving car right now. 

The study of more than 1,500 motorists found that misunderstandings about driver assistance systems is dangerously confusing motorists into thinking they have an autonomous vehicle.

There are six levels of vehicle automation generally accepted by the motor industry, starting with level 0: no automation at all. That was pretty much every vehicle until about seven or eight years ago. Cruise control doesn’t count as automation, nor does Automatic Braking Systems (ABS) because the driver has to do the steering and braking all the time. Level 5 is full automation, where there doesn’t need to be a steering wheel at all, but that is a long way off, both in time and technology.

Level 1 automation is where some cars currently qualify. The driver still has to be in charge all the time and ready to take full control instantly if necessary, but systems such as Adaptive Cruise Control (ACC) will brake and accelerate, Lane Keeping Assistance (LKA) can help guide the steering, automated parking takes the stress out of parallel parking and Automatic Emergency Braking (AEB) slams the brakes on if an inattentive driver fails to spot cars slowing or stopped in front.  These are all driver assistance systems.

The car can do the steering when parking, but the driver must control forward and backward movement. The car can brake and accelerate and nudge the steering wheel as a lane keeping reminder, but the driver must keep their hands on the steering wheel and steer.

The most advanced level of automation currently on the road is still only Level 2 and appears in some Tesla models. Although often given the nickname “hands off” that’s extremely misleading; the system – and the law – requires the driver to be fully in control, which does mean keeping hold of the steering wheel, paying full attention to what’s going on and ready to take over at a moment’s notice when anything untoward might happens.

The name “Autopilot” is also very misleading and marketing departments really need to be much more careful with the names they give new technology to avoid deluding drivers into believing a car is capable of things it is not designed to do.

Level 3 automation will be the first stage at which the “driver” will be able to engage in some other activity such as watching a film but will still have to be awake and available to take over when the car determines that he or she must.

To be clear, no manufacturer currently has a level 3 car available for ordinary drivers to use on a public road.  At least for the next few years, whenever any of us get behind the steering wheel of a vehicle, we are in charge of it and responsible for remaining fully alert, staying in control and driving it in a safe and legal manner.

For more information about autonomous vehicles, click here.

By Tim Shallcross, IAM RoadSmart head of technical policy and advice