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IIHS announces new ratings set for the safeguards of semi-autonomous vehicles

Credit: Andy Slye/YouTube

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has announced that it is developing a new ratings program that evaluates the safeguards that vehicles with partial automation employ to help drivers stay attentive.

The IIHS will use four levels for rating the safeguards: good, acceptable, marginal, or poor. Vehicles with “good” safeguard system ratings will need to ensure that the driver’s eyes are directed at the road and their hands are either on the wheel or ready to grab it at any point. Vehicles with escalating alert systems and appropriate emergency procedures when a driver does not meet those conditions will also be required, the IIHS said.

Expectations for the IIHS are that the first set of ratings will be released in 2022. The precise timing is currently not solidified as supply chain bottlenecks have affected the IIHS’ ability to obtain test vehicles from manufacturers.

IIHS President David Harkey believes a rating system for these “driver monitoring” systems could determine their effectiveness and whether safeguards actually hold drivers accountable. “Partial automation systems may make long drives seem like less of a burden, but there is no evidence that they make driving safer,” Harkey said. ” In fact, the opposite may be the case if systems lack adequate safeguards.”

Self-driving cars are not yet available to consumers, the IIHS reassures in its press release. While some advertising operations or product names could be somewhat misleading, the IIHS admits that some vehicles have partial automation. However, the human driver is still required to handle many routine driving tasks that many of the systems simply cannot perform. The driver always needs to be attentive and monitor the vehicle’s behavior, especially in case of an emergency where the driver needs to take over control of the car. The numerous semi-autonomous or partially automated programs on the market, like Tesla Autopilot, Volvo Pilot Assist, and GM’s Super Cruise, to name a few, all have safeguards in place to help ensure drivers are focused and ready. However, the IIHS says that “none of them meet all the pending IIHS criteria.”

The previously named partially automated driving systems all use cameras, radar, or other sensors to “see” the road. Systems currently offered on the market combine Adaptive Cruise Control (ACC) and lane centering with other driver assistance features. Automated lane changing is becoming common as well, and is a great example of one of these additional features.

Regardless of how many features a semi-autonomous driving program has, all of them still require the driver to remain attentive and vigilant during operation. This does not mean that all drivers maintain attention, as some may use cheat devices or other loopholes to operate a vehicle with semi-autonomous features in a fully autonomous way. Additionally, the IIHS mentions in its press release that 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.”


Level 2 systems like Tesla Autopilot can improve drivers’ attentiveness: IIHS study

The main issue is the fact that many operators deliberately misuse the systems. IIHS Research Scientist Alexandra Mueller is spearheading the new ratings program, and she says that abuse of the systems is one of many problems with semi-autonomous vehicle features.

“The way many of these systems operate gives people the impression that they’re capable of doing more than they really are,” Mueller said regarding the features. “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.”

There is no way to monitor a driver’s thoughts or their level of focus on driving. However, there are ways to monitor gaze, head and hand position, posture, and other indicators that, when correctly displayed, could be consistent with someone who is actively engaged in driving.

The IIHS’ new ratings program aims to encourage the introduction of safeguards that can help reduce intentional and unintentional misuse. They would not address the functional aspects of some systems and whether they are activating properly, which could also contribute to crashes. It will only judge the systems that monitor human behaviors while driving.

“To earn a good rating, systems should use multiple types of alerts to quickly remind the driver to look at the road and return their hands to the wheel when they’ve looked elsewhere or left the steering unattended for too long. Evidence shows that the more types of alerts a driver receives, the more likely they will notice them and respond. These alerts must begin and escalate quickly. Alerts might include chimes, vibrations, pulsing the brakes, or tugging on the driver’s seat belt. The important thing is that the alerts are delivered through more channels and with greater urgency as time passes,” the IIHS says. Systems that work effectively would perform necessary maneuvers, like bringing the vehicle to a crawl or a stop if drivers that fail to respond to the numerous alerts. If an escalation of this nature occurs, the driver should be locked out of the system or the remainder of the drive, or until the vehicle is turned off and back on.

The rating criteria may also include certain requirements for automated lane changes, ACC, and lane centering. Automated lane changes should be initiated, or at least confirmed, by the driver before they are performed. If a vehicle comes to a complete stop when an ACC system is activated, the system “should not automatically resume if the driver is not looking at the road or the vehicle has been stopped for too long.” Lane centering features should also encourage the driver to share in steering, rather than switching off automatically when the driver adjusts the wheel. This could discourage some drivers from participating in driving, the IIHS said. Systems should also not be used if a seatbelt is unfastened, or when AEB or lane departure prevention is disabled.

“Nobody knows when we’ll have true self-driving cars, if ever. As automakers add partial automation to more and more vehicles, it’s imperative that they include effective safeguards that help drivers keep their heads in the game,” Harkey said.

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IIHS announces new ratings set for the safeguards of semi-autonomous vehicles
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