Autonomous driving systems have hidden dangers

Even now, it can be unnerving. Switching on such systems as active, radar-guided cruise control, or a lane-keeping assistant, systems that can temporarily take control of your car in certain circumstances, still feels weird. Presumably, it will become less weird in time, but right now it still feels worrying to let the chips take over, and the concern is always whether or not the car has ‘seen’ that other car ahead, or knows how sharply to turn the next corner.

The problem

According to independent crash test experts EuroNCAP, is that we’re right to be worried. The systems are far from perfect yet, if indeed they ever can be. The automated driving technology currently on sale is far from being the full-autonomous car of some people’s dreams, but we’re becoming seduced by the (often incorrect) publicity surrounding the tech, and too often expecting the cars to do more than they can do.

EuroNCAP has been running cars into crash barriers for more than 20 years now, and can be given a big chunk of credit for the improvements in road safety and the reduction in road deaths in Europe since then. Car makers, keen to score a five-star rating, have been loading their vehicles up with ever more advanced safety systems and crash structures, and the cars we drive today are far, far safer because of it. NCAP’s tests, though, have hitherto been more about what happens when everything goes wrong, and you hit something hard. There is a section of the test that rates active safety features, but it’s a score simply given for whether or not a car is equipped with such things, not how they perform. Or, possibly more pertinently, how they’re expected to perform.

Automated driving test

So, for this first dip of a testing toe into the dangerous waters of automated driving and (eventual) autonomy, EuroNCAP took ten cars — Audi A6, BMW 5 Series, DS 7 Crossback, Ford Focus, Hyundai Nexo, Mercedes-Benz C-Class, Nissan Leaf, Tesla Model S, Toyota Corolla, and Volvo V60 — and put their automated systems through the wringer on a test track.

The results make for some pretty sobering reading. According to NCAP: “This first test series on driver assist systems clearly shows that these systems are neither autonomous nor self-driving, but simply provide assistance. Besides the inherent redundancy that comes from having a human being behind the wheel, it is imperative that state-of-the-art passive and active safety systems remain available in the background as a safety backup.”

Further insight

When you start digging down into the detail of the reports, the results become even more arresting. Forget cars that can steer themselves, some of these car’s can’t even stop themselves, in spite of many people believing that such as radar cruise control means that you can simply set-and-forget when you’re on the motorway. The phrase that keeps recurring in the reports is: “The system offers moderate support, the driver being primarily required to handle the situation.” That’s as true of a €60,000 Audi as it is of a €25,000 Ford Focus, by the way, so don’t go thinking that paying more gets you more, in this respect.

In fact, the most expensive car in the test, the Tesla Model S, actually got one of the most stinging reports. While NCAP acknowledged the cleverness of Tesla’s systems, the problem is two-fold. On the one hand, drivers are becoming conditioned to think of Tesla’s Autopilot system as all-knowing, On the other, it’s the worst at letting a driver back in to take control again when needed.

Not there yet - driverless

The name “Autopilot” implies a fully automated system where the driver is not required. However, the limited scenarios tested clearly indicate that is not the case, nor is such a system legally allowed. The handbook mentions that the system is intended only for use on Highways and limited access roads, but the system is not geofenced and can therefore be engaged on any road with distinct lane markings” said the NCAP report into the Tesla Model S. “In steering support, the Tesla does not allow the driver to input any steering himself and the system will provide all the steering required in the S-bend scenario. When system steering limits are reached, the vehicle will slow down to make the turn, again eliminating the need for driver input. In the absence of lane markings, Autopilot will stay engaged and will try to steer a safe path. However, with the sensors the Tesla has, this is nearly impossible to do reliably and implies to the driver that the vehicle can take all corners which, again, may result in over-reliance.”

Over reliance

That last line is the damning one — for every other vehicle tested, the report concludes with the line “overall, the system is balanced with little risk of the driver over-reliance the system” and that’s even true of the Nissan Leaf, which received criticism for calling its system ‘ProPilot’ which, according to NCAP, “does not clearly indicate that the system is a driver-assist system and could be misunderstood. The limited scenarios tested show that the system provides assistance only.”

There’s also much talk of systems, across all the cars, tested, not being ‘geo-fenced’ and so able to be activated on twisting, winding roads that are simply not suited to such driving. Rather sadly, the reports all point out that these functions are laid-out in the handbooks for each vehicle, yet how many of us have actually ever read the book in the glovebox?

The scariest test is the so-called ‘cut-out’ test, where a vehicle in front, on a motorway, pulls suddenly out of the way only to reveal a stationary car blocking the lane ahead. At higher speeds, most of the systems just give up the ghost at this point, flashing a warning about a possible collision, but the driver needs to seriously be on their toes to swerve out of harm’s way.

The conclusion

Don’t listen to the autonomous vehicle hype, and sure as heck don’t believe any when you do hear it. Michiel van Ratingen, Euro NCAP secretary general said: “Euro NCAP’s message from these tests is clear - cars, even those with advanced driver assistance systems, need a vigilant, attentive driver behind the wheel at all times. It is imperative that state-of-the-art passive and active safety systems remain available in the background as a vital safety backup.”