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Automakers Having Trouble Deciding Between Boasting Semi-Autonomous Features and Safety

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【Summary】The technology behind having cars handle some of the driving is incredibly sophisticated, modern, and just downright cool. Automakers also have given their systems cool names, like Autopilot, Super Cruise, and ProPilot Assist. Now, brands are having trouble straddling the line of marketing their autonomous systems and making sure that drivers know the limitations of the system.

Original Vineeth Joel Patel    Jun 03, 2018 9:15 AM PT
Automakers Having Trouble Deciding Between Boasting Semi-Autonomous Features and Safety
author: Vineeth Joel Patel   

Modern semi-autonomous systems are awe-inspiring. It's 2018 — we were supposed to have flying cars on the road by now, but instead, having vehicles drive on their own is the closest thing we have to the utopian future some envisioned decades ago. Instead, we have semi-autonomous systems. And while that seems like we're way off of what's possible, it's still exciting, because the automobile hasn't been revolutionized in this way since it first came out. 


Naturally, automakers and technology companies want to market their new systems. They've come up with cool names like Tesla with Autopilot, or General Motors with Super Cruise, and Nissan with ProPilot Assist. Millions, maybe even billions, of dollars have been invested into developing the technology, so spending some funds to market the tech to consumers is a smart idea. Unfortunately, as USA Today reports, automotive companies are between two hard spots, deciding to market their tech as the modern, forward-thinking systems that they are or warning potential consumers of their limitations. 


Tesla Autopilot.jpg


Recent Incidents Reveal Drivers Don't Understand Autonomy


The recent accidents involving a few of Tesla's machines reveals the severity of the situation. Numerous videos, especially those found on YouTube, laud the automaker's machines for being able to operate fully autonomously without anyone behind the driver's seat. It's a dangerous demonstration of what happens when new tech lands into consumers' hands without a proper explanation of what it's actually capable of doing. After watching videos of people moving from the driver's seat to the rear and falling asleep behind the wheel, you can't really blame owners for trying to do the same thing, can you?


Nissan's lead engineer on the brand's ProPilot Assist system believes that automakers are responsible for teaching consumers on what their autonomous systems can and can't do. "It's on us to educate people about what's allowable and what's not allowable," said Christensen. "We don't want drivers to be overly confident. (The tech) is there to assist you, it's not driving for you." 


As the outlet points out, more than 12 automakers on the road have Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS) that take some of the responsibilities of driving away from a human. The jury's still out on whether the tech is actually helping or hurting drivers in the long run, but automakers are creating manuals that are as large as college textbooks with warnings and disclaimers on what the systems can and can't do. 


The issue with that, though, is that consumers don't read the manuals. For instance, when's the last time you cracked open your car's manual and looked at what kind of safety features your vehicle has? It's probably been awhile. 


Advertisements Are Used To Educate Consumers


Instead, as USA Today points out, the majority of consumers get their information from advertisements and, we'll go out on a limb and say this, from watching others interact with similar machines. This doesn't get owners into the right mindset, as it makes them believe that the vehicle is always in control and that they don't need to be ready to take control, which is far from the case. 


USA Today points towards automakers' advertisements as a major cause for this distorted perception. Look at the way Nissan markets its ProPilot Assist system, which has some help from "Star Wars." The driver behind the wheel of the Nissan Rogue relies on the autonomous system to skillfully navigate between two enemy semi-trucks. Her hands hover above the steering wheel, while the Rogue drives in between the large vehicles. 



The way Cadillac presents its Super Cruise system suffers from a similar issue. The automaker claims the system is "the world's first true hands-free system for the highway." It even claims that there's "no need to tap the wheel to show you're still there." Sure, the company then backtracks with, "that doesn't mean you can check out," but you've practically lost every viewer by that stage. 



Tesla doesn't advertise its Autopilot system, but the automaker's outspoken CEO, Elon Musk, claimed that the semi-autonomous system is "probably better than a person right now," back in 2015. He also stated that Autopilot would "drive virtually all roads at a safety level significantly better than humans."


Unfortunately, recent accidents involving Tesla's vehicles that were operating in Autopilot mode reveal that while it might be safer, it's far from perfect. Musk understands that, though, claiming that Autopilot will "never be perfect," states the outlet. While Musk knows that, Tesla owners might not. 


More Tech Leads To Worse Drivers


When USA Today reached out to Tesla in regard to the company's semi-autonomous system and its capabilities, the automaker provided the outlet with excerpts from its owner's manuals. The outlet claims the statements claim that while Autopilot "is the most advanced driver assistance system on the road, it does not turn a Tesla into an autonomous vehicle and does not allow the driver to abdicate responsibility." 


Numerous consumer groups, according to the outlet, asked the Federal Trade Commission to look into Tesla and its machines for having "consistently and deceptively hyped its technology," stated Consumer Watchdog's John Simpson. 


Some experts want regulators to take another look at licensing laws and how it pertains to vehicles that have driver-assistance features. "With automation comes more responsibility," said Bryan Reimer, research scientist with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Advanced Vehicle Technology Consortium. "Every system out there now has benefits and limitations, and none work perfectly in all situations. We as a society have to understand the balancing point." 


A major issue that automakers and technology companies are running into is how slow humans are to take control of a vehicle when it attempts to make a handoff. As USA Today points out, companies have brought that upon themselves, as better technology takes drivers even more out of the equation, which means they'll rely on it more. Still, automakers have to show consumers the full extent of the systems and show them that they're not always in control. 


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