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06 October 2018

Experts Predict More Crashes, New Risks in Era of Automated Driving Systems

Experts Predict More Crashes, New Risks in Era of Automated Driving Systems
By Keith Barry, consumerreports.org, 3 October 2018

Recent crashes could be warning sign of what’s to come as technology spreads to more affordable cars

The Tesla Model S that crashed into a fire truck in South Jordan, Utah.
The front half of the Tesla Model S sat destroyed, fully wedged under the back of a fire truck on a major highway just outside Salt Lake City.

The driver told local crash investigators she’d been using the Autopilot driver-assist system on her Tesla. It wasn’t until later they learned from the automaker that her hands were off the wheel for 80 seconds before impact.

This was the first time firefighters with the Unified Fire Authority responded to a car crash related to partially automated driving systems, according to assistant chief Mike Watson. His department has seen lots of crashes caused by distracted or impaired drivers, but this was completely new territory.

“You can get your arms around, ‘Oh, the driver was distracted.’ You can get your arms around, ‘Oh, the driver was impaired,’” he told CR. “We don’t have our arms around this technology.”

Crashes like this one may well represent the canary in a coal mine, as more vehicles with partially automated steering and speed control start arriving at dealerships and at more affordable prices—introducing new risks as these features seek to make driving easier and more convenient.

The systems take over some—but not all—driving tasks from humans. These convenience features include self-steering technology and adaptive cruise control—which lets your car keep pace with the car ahead.

CR experts and several other experts interviewed for this report predict more crashes in the next few years like the one in South Jordan, Utah, where drivers appear to rely on the new technology to drive for them.

"These systems don't make the vehicle self-driving by any means,” says Jake Fisher, director of auto testing at Consumer Reports. “They require an attentive driver who’s able to take over the controls at a moment's notice. This need for a handoff may be a recipe for disaster."

There appear to be no official predictions from government or academic sources about the number of future crashes expected from this new brand of distracted driving, or whether those systems may reduce other kinds of crashes. But at least four Tesla cars have crashed into stopped emergency vehicles over the last year. In some of the cases, the drivers reported that they were using Autopilot.

In response to CR's questions to Tesla about how the company ensures drivers are prepared to take over when Autopilot disengages, a Tesla spokesperson told CR that Autopilot operates in conjunction with the vehicle’s driver and requires direct supervision at all times.

Some of these convenience features are packaged together by automakers and given names, such as Tesla's Autopilot or Nissan/Infiniti’s ProPilot Assist. Other automakers offer them as individual features available with various option packages.

Automated steering and acceleration are currently available in luxury vehicles from BMW, Cadillac, Mercedes-Benz, Volvo, and others. But mainstream vehicles are getting them, too: The new 2019 Nissan Rogue and Altima offer automated steering and speed control, and General Motors has promised more automation in less expensive vehicles by 2020.

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