The perception that self-driving cars can really operate themselves without driver involvement is worrying automotive watchdogs, who say that some Americans have grown dangerously confident in the capabilities of semi-autonomous vehicles.
Their comments come as electric vehicle maker Tesla's so-called Autopilot system is under scrutiny once again following a crash that killed two passengers in the Houstonarea late Saturday.
"I would start by saying there are no self-driving cars despite what you may read about or what you’ve seen advertised," said Jake Fisher, senior director of auto testing for Consumer Reports. "And there's certainly nothing anywhere close to self-driving that is in production right now."
Tesla has been the most common target of critics for marketing that its vehicles are capable of "full self-driving" with an upgrade. They are not capable of full self-driving – and, in fact, Tesla says on its website that drivers are supposed to keep their hands on the wheel at all times, ready to take over when the system is not able to steer, accelerate or brake on its own.
In general, the most advanced available technology in new cars from Tesla, General Motors and Mercedes-Benz is capable of steering, accelerating and braking in certain circumstances, but their ability remains limited and drivers are supposed to continuously pay attention to the road.
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Some drivers have found ways around Autopilot's restrictions, including the use of "Autopilot Buddy," a now-illegal aftermarket that tricked the vehicle into thinking the driver's hands were on the wheel. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration issued a cease-and-desist order to that device's manufacturer in June 2018.
It was not immediately clear whether Autopilot was engaged in the latest Tesla crash. But Harris County Precinct 4 Constable Mark Herman told The Wall Street Journal that investigators are "99.9% sure" that "there was no one at the wheel" when the crash happened.
"Autopilot is an intentionally deceptive name being used for a set of features that are essentially an advanced cruise control system," said Jason Levine, director of the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Center for Auto Safety, in an email interview. "There really is no longer a question that Tesla’s marketing is leading consumers to foreseeably misuse the technology in a dangerous way."
NHTSA said Monday that it is investigating the incident.
"NHTSA has immediately launched a Special Crash Investigation team to investigate the crash," the agency said in a statement. "We are actively engaged with local law enforcement and Tesla to learn more about the details of the crash and will take appropriate steps when we have more information."
Tesla did not respond to an emailed request seeking comment for this story.
On Saturday, before news of the crash broke, CEO Elon Musk's Twitter account cited a report claimingthat cars with its Autopilot system engaged "are now approaching 10 times lower chance of accident than average vehicle."
On Monday, after reports about the crash circulated, Musk said on Twitter that "data logs recovered so far show Autopilot was not enabled & this car did not purchase FSD," referring to "full self-driving" capability. That could not be independently verified.
"Moreover, standard Autopilot would require lane lines to turn on, which this street did not have," he said.
Tesla is among many tech companies and automakers that are developing their own self-driving cars, including Waymo, General Motors, Volkswagen and Ford. Apple is reportedly doing the same.
Automotive watchdogs acknowledge that the development of self-driving car technology will likely beto reducing crashes and deaths on the road. More than 36,000 people were killed in the U.S. in crashes in 2019, according to NHTSA, which has endorsed the development of self-driving vehicles.
But self-driving cars currently under development are being tested in limited scenarios, such as fully mapped roads in Phoenix, San Francisco and Detroit.
"Getting it right to the point where the driver doesn’t need to be engaged is extremely challenging, and we’re just not there yet," said Greg Brannon, director of automotive engineering for AAA.
Paradoxically, the better the system gets, the more misplaced faith drivers often have in their capability, Brannon said.
Fisher of Consumer Reports said part of the problem with Tesla's system is that it "can be engaged in areas where it is absolutely beyond its capability and that is not good."
In effect, that meansAutopilot can be activated on roads that are too complicated for it to safely maneuver, he said.
Other automakers have taken a different approach with systems that partially automate driving in limited circumstances. For example, GM has deployed a system called Super Cruiseon Cadillac models, providing hands-free driving on fully mapped highways and freeways. The system uses a camera to track the driver's eye movement to ensure drivers are keeping their eyes on the road. If drivers take their eyes off the road for more than a few moments, the system alerts them to pay attention – and if they don't look at the road, it will bring the carto a stop.
"There are systems that automate steering and automate speed that need constant monitoring from the driver," Fisher said. "The driver is still driving the car even if some of the controls are automated."
Even automakersthat produce semi-autonomous cars offer what they call advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS), including technology like lane-keeping assistance, blind-spot monitoring and automatic emergency braking.
"They’re driver aids, and that’s all," Fisher said. "Assist is the keyword. If there are systems that assist the driver, that can absolutely be helpful. Give the driver more information, help the driver with certain tasks. Done correctly, they can absolutely improve safety and comfort for the driver."
About 96% of 2020 model-year vehicles came with at least one ADAS feature, according to AAA.
Levine, director of the Center for Auto Safety, said ADAS features "could save far more lives, far more affordably and right away" than systems like Tesla's Autopilot.
While some Americans appear to be too trusting of self-driving car technology, others don't trust it at all.
About 86% "would be afraid to ride in a self-driving vehicle" or "are unsure about it," according to a recent AAA survey. Only 14% "would trust riding in a vehicle that drives itself."
In the short run, "the real opportunity is to do a better job with basic safety systems that can really make a difference in reducing fatalities on the road," AAA's Brannon said.
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