‘Autonomous’ moniker lulling drivers into false sense of security, say Thatcham and ABI

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Use of the word ‘autonomous’ in car manufacturer marketing and literature is lulling drivers into a false sense of security over the capabilities of their vehicles, the Association of British Insurers (ABI) and Thatcham Research have warned.

Thatcham’s new Assisted and Automated Driving Definition and Assessment research paper identifies dangerous grey areas associated with some driver support technologies that are being relied on to drive a car independently, despite being incapable of doing so.

These areas include misleading names, such as Autopilot and ProPilot, given to systems by car makers, how and when drivers should take back control of their vehicles, and systems that are designed to work in specific situations only (for example, on motorways) but can also function anywhere.

Matthew Avery, head of research at Thatcham, commented: “We are starting to see real-life examples of the hazardous situations that occur when motorists expect the car to drive and function on its own. Specifically, where the technology is taking ownership of more and more of the driving task, but the motorist may not be sufficiently aware that they are still required to take back control in problematic circumstances.”

“Fully automated vehicles that can own the driving task from A to B, with no need for driver involvement whatsoever, won’t be available for many years to come. Until then, drivers remain criminally liable for the safe use of their cars and as such, the capability of current road vehicle technologies must not be oversold.”

To provide guidance to car makers and legislators, Thatcham has drawn up a list of 10 key criteria that every assisted vehicle must have, complementing the criteria laid out in 2017 that a car must meet before it can be called ‘automated’.

Avery continued: “It begins with how systems are named and described across car maker marketing materials and the driver’s handbook. Names like Autopilot or ProPilot are deeply unhelpful, as they infer the car can do a lot more than it can. Absolute clarity is needed, to help drivers understand the when and how these technologies are designed to work and that they should always remain engaged in the driving task.”

James Dalton, director of general insurance policy at the ABI, said: “Insurers are major supporters of efforts to get assisted and autonomous vehicles onto the UK’s roads. Given the part human error plays in the overwhelming majority of accidents, these technologies have the potential to dramatically improve road safety. However, we are a long way from fully autonomous cars which will be able to look after all parts of a journey and in the meantime, it remains crucial that all drivers are alert and ready to take back full control at a moment’s notice. Manufacturers must be responsible in how they describe and name what their vehicles can do, and the insurance industry is ready to hold them to account on this.”

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Mark Dugdale is the editor of Claims Media. Mark welcomes articles, letters or feedback from readers and can be reached via mark.dugdale@barkerbrooks.co.uk