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IIHS Will Add Safety Scores for Self-Driving Car Systems

Car and Driver logo Car and Driver 1/22/2022 Sebastian Blanco
  • There are no self-driving cars available to own today, but that isn't stopping automakers from hyping that these Level 2+ systems are offering more than they're capable of.
  • Now, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) wants to see just how good these "partial automation" technologies are at identifying distracted drivers, the ones who are supposed to be actively participating even if the car can change lanes or drive the speed of other cars automatically.
  • IIHS will issue its first ratings later in 2022 and doesn't see any automaker's system getting top marks just yet.

Some drivers might call it Level 2+ autonomous driving, or perhaps a partially self-driving vehicle. Companies call the technology these cars use things like Autopilot (Tesla), Pilot Assist (Volvo), and Super Cruise (GM). Whatever name you give the fancy driver assistance systems in today's cars, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) is going to start figuring out just how safe they really are, especially when it comes to reducing intentional or unintentional misuse.

IIHS announced this week it will create "safeguard ratings for partial automation" technology and will rank these features with one of four ratings: Good, Acceptable, Marginal, and Poor. The reason, IIHS said, was because the group has not seen all of the benefits in safer driving that partial automation promises. In 2020, a study of 2013–2017 BMW vehicles by the IIHS's Highway Loss Data Institute, for example, found that front crash prevention sensors and the addition of adaptive cruise control did reduce the amount of property damage and bodily injury, but "the further addition of lane centering as part of the company's partially automated driving package had little impact," the group said at the time. When Car and Driver tested driver-assist features in 2021, we found that all of them had problems identifying inattentive drivers.

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

To earn a Good rating, a driver assist system will have to be able to track where a driver is looking, and it needs to make sure drivers are watching the road with their hands on the wheel—or are ready to grab it—during the entire drive. IIHS will also require a car to offer "escalating alerts" and have "appropriate emergency procedures" in place whenever the driver isn't paying attention. IIHS said that different kinds of warnings— "chimes, vibrations, pulsing the brakes or tugging on the driver's seatbelt"—are better than just one type, and that a driver who fails to respond to these alerts "should be locked out of the system for the remainder of the drive, until the engine is switched off and started again."


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IIHS doesn't expect any automaker's system to get a Good score when the first ratings are assigned later this year. "While most partial automation systems have some safeguards in place to help ensure drivers are focused and ready, none of them meets all the pending IIHS criteria," the group wrote in a statement.

IIHS new semi-automated grading system © IIHS IIHS new semi-automated grading system IIHS new semi-automated grading system © IIHS IIHS new semi-automated grading system

This would be a good place to mention that there are no fully self-driving vehicles available to buy in the U.S. today, even as some automakers hype their systems' capabilities beyond what's real. "Some manufacturers have oversold the capabilities of their systems, prompting drivers to treat the systems as if they can drive the car on their own," IIHS wrote. "In egregious cases, drivers have been documented watching videos or playing games on their cellphones or even taking naps while speeding down the expressway" before citing a 2018 example of a fatal crash involving a Tesla Model X where the driver was likely playing video games while "driving."

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