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Don’t Overestimate the ‘Semi’ in Semiautonomous Cars

Tesla may snatch the headlines around the rise of semiautonomous vehicle features that take some of the work off the driver, but its monopoly is unlikely to last: A new report finds that in the first quarter of this year, approximately 7 percent of new cars sold in the US were capable of guiding themselves down the highway. That’s about 200,000 vehicles, a threefold increase over the same period in 2018.

While the popularity of Tesla’s Model 3 accounts for some of that jump, more came from traditional manufacturers Toyota and Nissan, says Chris Jones, chief analyst at tech analysis firm Canalys. That’s good news for people who can’t afford a Tesla or Cadillac but want the convenience of a car that lets them take a load off. But the boom amplifies concerns from researchers and customer advocacy groups, who say the manufacturers of such systems do a lackluster job of ensuring that drivers know how they work and what they can and can’t do.

In the past few years, these systems have become common among luxury automakers. Tesla has Autopilot, Cadillac has Super Cruise, Audi has Traffic Jam Pilot. BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Jaguar Land Rover, and other luxury automakers have their own versions of driver-assistance tech, which some people call semiautonomous, others semi-self-driving.

Nissan’s ProPilot Assist feature is now available on popular, affordable models like the Leaf, Rogue, and Altima.

Nissan

The accelerating spread of these systems is concerning, because many car buyers don’t know how they work or how one compares to the next, says Bryan Reimer, who studies human-machine interaction at MIT. He also coauthored a recent paper that found that 22.7 percent of people surveyed think you can buy a self-driving car today. (You cannot.) Features like Tesla Autopilot count as Level 2 (out of five) on SAE’s scale of automation features, meaning the car works the steering wheel and pedals, but the driver must actively monitor the system and remain ready to retake control. “Level 2 is not automation technology as you think about it. It’s driver assistance,” Reimer says.

The line is blurred most notably by Elon Musk. While Tesla officially insists its customers are always in control of the car, its CEO promises its cars will soon be “fully self-driving” and appears in places like CBS’ 60 Minutes, driving on Autopilot with his hands in his lap. Meanwhile, Tesla's cars have repeatedly made news by crashing into stopped fire trucks and turning semis. But Tesla is just the most prominent automaker making a mess with marketing names that use terms like pilot, cruise, and assist in different combinations and that people struggle to understand.

Part of the problem is the muddled vocabulary. First off, not everyone agrees on how to apply the definition of a Level 2 system. Jones’ team counted Toyota cars equipped with the new Safety Sense package, which Toyota began rolling out to just about every Toyota and Lexus model last year. The package includes a feature called Lane Tracing Assist that uses a camera and radar to help keep the car in its lane. A Toyota spokesperson disagrees, calling that a Level 1 system, because the driver is never supposed to take their hands off the steering wheel—and the system deactivates if they do. Both have reasonable arguments—and there’s no official arbiter of what car is what level—but Toyota’s tech stands apart from systems like Tesla Autopilot. Rather than tech that does the easy work but relies on a human for backup, Toyota wants to eventually deploy a system that kicks in only when the driver gets into trouble.

It’s important that automakers not overpromise what their tech can do in their marketing materials, and there, Toyota and Nissan do well. But the issue goes beyond that kind of education, Reimer says. Humans are psychologically ill-suited to pay constant attention while the car does the driving. (This problem is called the vigilance decrement; it also affects folks like security guards and drone pilots.) Automakers who offer these systems must carefully consider how they monitor, manage, and motivate drivers to stay alert. He points to Cadillac’s Super Cruise as a good example: It uses a camera to track the driver’s head position. If you look away from the road for more than a few seconds, you get an audio and visual warning, along with a buzz in your seat.

Most systems offered today rely on whether a driver’s hands are on the steering wheel, which Reimer calls subpar. That’s true of Nissan’s ProPilot Assist, which is now available on popular models like the Leaf, Rogue, and Altima. Nissan doesn’t have an Elon Musk out there fudging the line between driver assistance and driver replacement, and it’s careful to promote the system as a driver aid; all its marketing materials show people using the system with their hands firmly on the wheel. (It’s investigating the idea of camera-based driver monitoring, a spokesperson says.) Still, ProPilot Assist is fundamentally the same as Tesla Autopilot in terms of what it does and how it interacts with its human overseer. So as Nissan and its ilk put more of these cars on the road, they risk getting their own share of headlines.

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