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People still seem to think their fancy cars are fully self-driving

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Despite years of headlines about driver assistance systems being involved in horrific car crashes, a study by the US-based Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) suggests motorists continue to use their vehicles as though they are fully self-driving.

One does not have to look back far. Only last month did General Motors’ Cruise unit issue a safety recall to address vehicle behavior during unprotected left turns after a crash in San Francisco.

In early summer, research by the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration came up with the damning statistic that Tesla’s Autopilot system is involved in 70 percent of accidents where driver assist software is a factor.

And yet the IIHS study of 600 motorists who regularly engage systems like GM’s Super Cruise, Nissan’s ProPILOT Assist, and Autopilot (200 of each) found that “they were more likely to perform non-driving-related activities like eating or texting while using their partial automation systems than while driving unassisted.”

Just over half of Super Cruise users, 42 percent of Tesla owners, and 12 percent of ProPILOT Assist drivers “said that they were comfortable treating their vehicles as fully self-driving.”

Despite the Autopilot branding, Tesla covers its behind by insisting the system should only be used by attentive drivers with hands on the wheel. It has a lockout feature that disables Autopilot if the user is deemed not to be paying attention, and Super Cruise does the same. Alarmingly, 40 percent of those using these drive assist systems admitted they had been kicked out for good.

“The big-picture message here is that the early adopters of these systems still have a poor understanding of the technology’s limits,” said IIHS president David Harkey. “But we also see clear differences among the three owner populations. It’s possible that system design and marketing are adding to these misconceptions.”

The IIHS said Super Cruise ads focus on hands-free capabilities while Autopilot “implies Tesla’s system is more capable than it really is.” This correlates with the lower number of users relying on ProPILOT Assist, the name of which makes it clearer to the driver that it is only an aid.

Gender may have also influenced the results. “The majority of Super Cruise and Autopilot owners were male, while both sexes were more or less equally represented among ProPILOT owners,” said the IIHS. “Most Super Cruise owners were over 50, Autopilot owners tended to be younger (a quarter of them were under 35), and ProPILOT Assist owners were more evenly distributed across the age range.”

“These results from frequent users of three different partial automation systems once again drive home the need for robust, multifaceted safeguards,” said IIHS research scientist Alexandra Mueller, lead author of the study.

“Many of these drivers said they had experiences where they had to suddenly take over the driving because the automation did something unexpected, sometimes while they were doing something they were not supposed to.

“The broad acceptance of attention reminders and system lockouts suggests not only that they have the potential to make it safer to use partial automation, but also that they could be implemented more widely to help combat driver distraction in general.”

Tesla founder Elon Musk admitted in April that building full self-driving cars was harder than he first thought.

“There are just so many false dawns with self-driving, where you think you think you’ve got a handle on the problem, and then, nope, it turns out you just hit a ceiling,” he said.

“In retrospect, [it] seems obvious, but in order to solve full self-driving properly, you actually just have to solve real-world AI.” ®

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