Volvo Concept 26

Not everyone understands the differences between semi- and fully autonomous cars, much less the various levels of self-driving technology. As a result, consumers may wrongly assume that a car can take over the controls, a dangerous miscalculation, the Association of British Insurers (ABI) and Thatcham Research Center warned in a recent whitepaper.

OpinionsThis has already caused at least one death with Tesla’s Autopilot feature, and Thatcham CEO Peter Shaw tells Wired that “autonomous ambiguity could result in a short-term increase in crashes.”

While most experts agree that fully self-driving cars are still years away, there’s such intense competition among automakers and others developing autonomous technology that it’s led to an overstating of the abilities of self-driving systems. Luxury car companies in particular are locked in a race to see who can add the latest semi-autonomous features to their high-end vehicles—and have had to walk back claims on the technology that could be misinterpreted by consumers.

Keep Self-Driving Descriptions Simple for Safety's Sake

For example, Mercedes-Benz had to deny a claim by one its executives that its semi-autonomous Drive Pilot system would protect a car’s occupants over pedestrians in a “trolley problem” scenario. And Audi caught flak for overplaying the capabilities of the AI traffic jam pilot feature on its new flagship A8 sedan.

To help clarify the difference between semi- and fully autonomous vehicles, ABI proposes a two-stage categorization of the technology—assisted or automated—and suggests government regulators adopt this simple classification system.

I’ll go a step further and recommend that automakers not only get onboard with ABI’s two-tiered description, but also use standardized terms to codify semi-autonomous driver assist systems as not to further confuse consumers.

Either Assisted or Automated

ABI advises that the term “assisted” be used for anything short of full autonomy, and that “automated” only be applied to a car that can fully drive itself, including avoiding all types of crashes and having back-up systems that make it failsafe. Of course, every car now on the road now and for years to come will fall under the “assisted” designation.

But even that’s too broad, especially given that automakers use a wide array of terms to describe often identical driver-assist systems. Distronic Plus is the name Mercedes uses for its adaptive cruise control system, which can come to a full stop and then resume. The official Audi name for the same technology is adaptive cruise control with stop & go, while the BMW term is Active Cruise Control with Traffic Jam Assistant.

More recent semi-autonomous system—Mercedes Drive Pilot, Audi AI traffic jam pilot, Volvo’s Pilot Assist II—have similar non-conforming nomenclature, except for the use of the word “pilot.” Another instance in which proprietary driver-assist terminology is confusing for consumers is Honda and Acura’s Road Departure Mitigation, which does the same thing as other automakers’ lane-keeping assist systems.

While driver assists have been shown to save lives—and ABI says in its report that it “strongly supports” autonomy technology for this reason—I agree with the organization that automakers and others need to keep descriptions of self-driving technology simple for safety’s sake.

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