It’s not just Tesla. Experts say the entire industry is struggling to safely introduce automated features to the masses.

Ford BlueCruise.
Ford BlueCruise advertises “hands-free driving.” Experts say that gives drivers the wrong idea.

  • Tesla often catches heat for the fast-and-loose way it markets Autopilot.
  • But virtually all automakers are caught up in a messy transition to automated driving.
  • Better education, marketing, and engineering can make roads safer as tech takes over, experts say.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

When a fiery Tesla Model S crash killed two people in April – with nobody behind the wheel, officials said – Elon Musk’s carmaker came under fire once more over the risks of its Autopilot tech. It wasn’t the first time, and it likely won’t be the last.

Over the years, critics have called out Tesla for the misleading and potentially dangerous way it brands its driver-assistance features, Autopilot and Full-Self-Driving Capability, neither of which make Teslas autonomous. And a growing number of high-profile crashes and countless viral videos show that even if Tesla doesn’t endorse reckless driving, its cars certainly allow it to happen.

But Tesla isn’t alone. The messy transition to automated driving is upon us, and the entire auto industry has work to do to make roads safer. Advanced driver-assistance systems aim to make driving safer and more comfortable with features like lane centering, blind-spot monitoring, and adaptive cruise control. Still, their rollout has been far from perfect, experts say.

Plenty of other automakers give drivers an imperfect impression of what their cars can do. General Motors and Ford market their systems as “hands-free driving” on approved stretches of highway. And although the companies warn drivers to keep their eyes on the road at all times, Missy Cummings, a Duke University engineering professor who studies automation, says “hands-free driving” is an invitation for people’s attention to wander.

“The message that you are sending to consumers when you say ‘hands-free’ – even though they don’t mean this – is ‘attention-free,'” Cummings told Insider. “There is a lot of confusion already in the customer’s mind about what cars are capable of. And by endorsing ‘hands-free,’ you are only going to see more distracted behavior.”

“Representatives from Ford and GM pushed back, telling Insider that their vehicles’ internal cameras monitor driver awareness, while various alerts ensure they stay engaged.”

BlueCruise_Mustang_Mach E_02
Ford BlueCruise.

According to a 2018 AAA survey, 40% of drivers expect that systems with names like Autopilot, Hyundai ProPilot, Volvo Pilot Assist should enable cars to drive themselves, despite there being no such car on the market. Today’s most advanced driver-assistance systems can reliably do things like keep up with traffic, maintain a lane, and park automatically. Still, they require full driver supervision in case something goes wrong and they can’t handle more complex driving tasks. Lower-tier systems have safety features like collision detection, lane departure warning, and blind-spot monitoring.

Read more: Why the CEO of a BMW- and Ford-backed battery startup thinks his $1.2 billion SPAC deal will help revolutionize EVs

It’s more than just marketing and naming. A larger problem is that drivers don’t fully understand what their cars can and can’t do – regardless of their features.

It’s a given that practically no owners read the manual, where most detailed information about safety features resides. But research has also shown that many car salespeople don’t grasp driver-assistance tech enough to adequately educate buyers. Some even spread misinformation.

A GM test driver sits in a 2021 Cadillac Escalade SUV with General Motors' Super Cruise hands-free driving assistance in this undated handout picture. General Motors/Handout via REUTERS
2021 Cadillac Escalade SUV with General Motors’ Super Cruise hands-free driving assistance.

Tracy Pearl, a law professor at the University of Oklahoma who researches self-driving technology, says the education gap creates two worrisome trends. More drivers will abuse systems like Autopilot by not paying attention to the road, while others won’t get the full benefits of advanced features because they either don’t trust the technology or don’t know how to use it.

“What we need are people in that middle category who are going to be steely-eyed realists about what exactly the system is capable of and who are willing to learn how to use their cars safely,” Pearl said. Expanding that group will be the key challenge facing automated driving in coming years, she continued.

Car companies also must improve the design of their systems, says Bryant Walker Smith, a professor at the University of South Carolina who coauthored the global standards for driving automation. Especially pressing areas include what happens when a system needs to disengage and how cars monitor driver attention.

tesla autopilot
A Tesla on Autopilot.

GM’s Super Cruise, for example, uses cameras to ensure drivers’ eyes are looking forward. That’s more effective than some other strategies but remains an imperfect way of measuring attentiveness, Smith said. More generally, car companies need to think about balancing safety and convenience features to reduce the risk of crashes without making drivers lazy or degrade their driving skills, he said.

Ultimately, Smith said, the federal government should take more action to better understand driver-assist systems, standardize them, mandate the most life-saving features, and hold automakers to a higher standard. Automated vehicle policy, he says, represents a huge opportunity to make roads safer in a country where some 40,000 people die in motor vehicle crashes annually, and major restrictions on conventional vehicles are unlikely.

Advanced driver-assist systems are a potential game-changer for road safety. But with the way things are going, experts say we could start to see more crashes as the complex technology gets into the hands of more undereducated drivers.

“I think the problem is going to get worse before it gets better,” Pearl said.

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