Self-driving cars can get confounded by car wash

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【Summary】A recent report is revealing that cars equipped with auto-braking systems tend to get confused when facing car wash.

Original Claire    Nov 03, 2016 10:25 AM PT
Self-driving cars can get confounded by car wash

We now have many semi/fully autonomous cars on the road. You wouldn't be surprised to hear about a newly released car that can park by itself, help you keep driving centered perfectly in your lane lane, and apply automatic braking when facing potential collisions. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the auto industry both advocate self-driving cars. They report that they can save lives by applying this technology to every passenger vehicle sold in the United States.

However, the self-driving system is still in its developmental stage and not safe enough to handle all changing road situations. We never lack for news regarding the latest accidents from a semi/fully autonomous car.  And a recent report is revealing yet another inability that cars equipped with auto-braking systems have—they tend to get confused when facing car wash.

According to the car-shopping site, motorists driving 14 different vehicle brands are reporting that their rides can be rendered virtually immobilized at many automated car washes unless certain auto-braking systems can be disabled. The listed vehicles that are confounded by soapy water include Acura, BMW, Chrysler, Dodge, Fiat, Jeep, Lexus, Mercedes-Benz, RAM, Range Rover, Subaru, Tesla, Toyota, and Volvo.

The basic reason lies in that sensors installed on an autonomous car can't tell the difference between a solid wall and a soft car wash mitter curtain. They would mistake the brushing equipment as some large and dangerous obstacles that need to be avoided for safety. There are cases reported by car wash operators that autopilot cars have become stuck in mid-wash by their vehicles' auto-braking systems. And some even jumped the car wash rails to prevent the "crash", thus causing a collision with the car following behind.

The auto-braking system on a car often uses radar and sometimes lasers and cameras to detect an imminent crash. Once detecting danger, these systems either provide a warning to the driver or take action autonomously without any driver input. This might include braking or steering or both, depending on whether the vehicle is driving at high or low speed. Some cars with collision avoidance systems are even equipped with adaptive cruise control to set the car with a certain velocity.

In March 2016, NHTSA and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety announced that the manufacturers of 99% of U.S. automobiles had agreed to include automatic emergency braking systems as a standard feature on virtually all new cars sold in the U.S. by 2022. NHTSA also predicted that applying automatic emergency braking system in every car would prevent an estimated 28,000 collisions and 12,000 injuries.

However, auto-braking systems are not perfect, as it might encounter other conditions that leave it confounded. Moreover, the situation is further complicated by the fact that not all semi-autonomous systems are created equal. "There's no standardization in how autonomous and automatic braking systems work, how they're disabled, or even if they can be disabled," explains Eric Wulf CEO of the International Car Wash Association.

For some cars, disabling the auto-braking system only needs the push of one button, while for others, drivers might have to dig into a thick manual to find instructions on changing the setting.

"Consumers have no idea about the unintended consequences of these technologies on simple, everyday tasks. We want drivers to be informed before they get to the car wash." said BestRide editor-in-chief Craig Fitzgerald.

And that's what automakers should do -- educate their customers while at the safe time working to perfect the system. 

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