IIHS to create ratings program for partial automation

Jan. 20, 2022
The ratings will evaluate a vehicle's attention reminders and other alerts to help drivers stay focused while on the road.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) is working on a ratings program that will evaluate the safeguards that vehicles with partial automation use to keep a driver focused on the road. The safeguards will be rated as either good, acceptable, marginal, or poor. Good safeguard systems will ensure a driver's eyes are on the road and that their hands on either on the wheel or prepared to grab the wheel at all times. Also required of these systems, are alerts and other emergency procedures that will escalate if a driver does not meet those conditions. 

The first set of ratings should be issued sometime in 2022, but IIHS is uncertain of exactly when, as supply chain issues have made it difficult to obtain vehicles for testing. 

“Partial automation systems may make long drives seem like less of a burden, but there is no evidence that they make driving safer,” says IIHS President David Harkey. “In fact, the opposite may be the case if systems lack adequate safeguards.”

IIHS is not the only group putting an emphasis on these safety features. Consumer Reports has announced it will be awarding points to partially automated driving systems, but only those that include adequate driver monitoring systems. Once the IIHS safeguard ratings are available, Consumer Reports will be factoring those in as well. 

The partial automation systems on the road today go by various names such as Autopilot, Pilot Assist, and Super Cruise, but all of them use cameras, radar, or other sensors to "see" the road. The current systems on the market use a combination of adaptive cruise control and lane-centering as well as other driver assistance features. Regardless of how "advanced" these systems are, they still require supervision by the driver. However, some manufacturers have been overzealous about the capabilities of their systems, giving drivers the false impression that the vehicles can drive themselves. In some cases, drivers have gone so far as watching videos or playing games on their cellphones or even taking naps as their vehicle speeds down the expressway. 

The misuse of the partial automation systems isn't the only issue, notes IIHS research scientist Alexandra Mueller, who is spearheading the new ratings program. 

“The way many of these systems operate gives people the impression that they’re capable of doing more than they really are,” Mueller says. “But even when drivers understand the limitations of partial automation, their minds can still wander. As humans, it’s harder for us to remain vigilant when we’re watching and waiting for a problem to occur than it is when we’re doing all the driving ourselves.”

The goal of the IIHS ratings is to encourage the application of safeguards that can help reduce both intentional and unintentional misuse. To do this systems should have a variety of alerts to remind the driver to keep their eyes on the road or put their hands back on the wheel. Alerts could be chimes, vibrations, pulsing the brakes, or tugging the driver's seatbelt. The most important thing is that the alerts are delivered through multiple channels and with greater urgency as time passes. 

If the driver does not respond, then the system should significantly slow the vehicle or bring it to a stop and proceed to notify a manufacturer concierge who can tell call emergency services if needed. Additionally, when this occurs, the driver should be locked out of the system for the remainder of the driver, until the engine is turned off and started again. 

Criteria for the rating systems also include: 

  • Automated lane changes must be initiated or confirmed by the driver
  • Adaptive cruise control does not automatically resume after a lengthy stop or if the driver is not looking at the road 
  • Lane centering does not discourage steering by the driver
  • Automation features cannot be used with the driver's seatbelt unfastened 
  • Automation features cannot be used with automatic emergency braking or lane departure prevention/warning disabled 

“Nobody knows when we’ll have true self-driving cars, if ever," IIHS President Harkey says. "As automakers add partial automation to more and more vehicles, it’s imperative that they include effective safeguards that help drivers keep their heads in the game.” 

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Originally published by Vehicle Service Pros, March 26, 2024

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