New concerns about over-reliance on driver assistance systems

  • September 15, 2019

Concerns have been raised again about over-reliance on “Level 2” driver assistance systems following the publication of an official US report into a crash involving a Tesla vehicle in “autopilot” mode.

The National Transport Safety Board, in its latest report into a crash involving a Tesla, found that the “autopilot” system’s design, which enabled the driver to disengage from the driving task, contributed to the crash. Driver inattention and use of the system in a way which was “inconsistent with guidance and warnings from the manufacturer” were also cited as contributing factors.

The car involved was travelling along a motorway when a lead vehicle moved out of the way of a stationary fire engine.  The Tesla’s automated cruise control system responded by accelerating into the rear end of the fire engine.

The driver, who reported no injuries, described eating a bagel and drinking coffee during the period preceding the crash.

After a fatal 2016 crash in Florida involving a Tesla on “Autopilot”, the NTSB had asked six carmakers with advanced driver assistance systems – Tesla, Volkswagen, BMW, Nissan, Daimler and Volvo – to “develop applications to more effectively sense the driver’s level of engagement and alert the driver when engagement is lacking while automated vehicle control systems are in use.”

“All manufacturers except Tesla have responded to the NTSB explaining their current systems and their efforts to reduce misuse and keep drivers engaged,” the NTSB said.

Tesla told the Reuters news agency that since the 2018 crash “we have made updates to our system including adjusting the time intervals between hands-on warnings and the conditions under which they’re activated.”

The type-approved version of “autopilot” is different on Tesla vehicles sold in the EU.

Carmakers are currently not allowed to sell vehicles in Europe that have Level 2-type lane keeping assistance systems that permit drivers to remove their hands from the steering wheel. ETSC has expressed a number of concerns about such systems, particularly as the task of the driver shifts from driving to monitoring, which research has shown leads to a lack of attention, quicker signs of fatigue and reduced reaction capabilities despite responsibility remaining with the driver.

Frank Mütze, ETSC’s automation specialist, said: “There is worrying evidence that drivers are already overestimating or misusing the driver assistance systems that are on the market today. As not enough attention is being paid to ensuring that drivers fully understand the technology they are using – and its limitations, we are concerned that allowing level 2 hands-off assistance systems could lead to more, not less collisions.”