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All the Talk About Autonomous Cars Is Confusing the Hell Out of Everybody

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We don’t actually have any truly self-driving cars on the roads just yet, but, according to a new poll, 71 percent of drivers across the world think they can buy one today. Of course, they can’t. Perhaps even more alarming, 11 percent of drivers are okay with the idea of having a little nap while using current driving assist technologies like adaptive cruise control. What the hell is the matter with you, global drivers?

The poll was commissioned by Thatcham Research, Euro NCAP and Global NCAP, and clearly shows how cloudy and confusing the current state of driving automation is in the minds of most drivers. Current driver assist systems and semi-autonomous systems fall uncomfortably in the realm of both doing too much to assist the driver and promote disengagement, while simultaneously not doing enough to compensate for that disengagement.


Matthew Avery, Director of Research at Thatcham Research describes the situation like this:

“Some carmakers are designing and marketing vehicles in such a way that drivers believe they can relinquish control. Carmakers want to gain competitive edge by referring to ‘self-driving’ or ‘semi-autonomous’ capability in their marketing, but it is fuelling consumer confusion. This is exacerbated by some systems doing too much for the driver, who ends up disengaged.”


That’s the worst of both worlds.

The poll took place this month and included 1,567 car owners from China, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, the UK and US.

What this poll clearly tells us is something that we’ve suspected for a long time: by far the majority of drivers have little to no understanding of what autonomous driving levels are (they aren’t really the most intuitive things), the various limitations associated with the differing levels, or the very basic fact that as of this moment, you cannot buy an entirely autonomous car because nobody is selling those.


Here’s some other alarming takeaways from the study:

  • 7 in 10 (71 percent) drivers globally and 53 percent in the UK believe that they can purchase a car that can drive itself today
  • The top three brands drivers believe sell fully self-driving cars today are: Tesla (40 percent), BMW (27 percent) and Audi (21 percent)
  • One in five (18 percent) British motorists think that a car marketed as being capable of automatic steering, braking and acceleration allows them to “sit back and relax and let the car do the driving”
  • Many respondents said that they would be tempted to break the law while using an Assisted Driving system by texting on a mobile phone (34%), making a hand-held call (33 percent) or having a brief nap (11 percent)
  • Only half (51 percent) of drivers believe they would be liable in the event of a crash when using Assisted Driving systems.

To be fair, all of this misinformation and confusion isn’t really the fault of the drivers; this is a combination of misleading marketing and far too much media hype.

Tesla in particular has been called out for misleading marketing surrounding their Autopilot system, which is described on Tesla’s website as “Full Self-Driving Hardware,” even though it’s by no means that—it’s a Level 2 system, which requires a human to be alert and vigilant and ready to take over from the car at a moment’s notice.


So what should we do now? Start a re-education campaign? Implement stricter rules about how such systems can be marketed? Here’s what Euro NCAP’s key conclusions are from this:

  • No car on the market today offers full automation or autonomy.
  • Cars on the market today can provide driver assistance but this should not be confused with automated driving. The driver remains fully responsible for safe driving.
  • Used correctly, this technology can help the driver to maintain a safe distance, speed and to stay within the lane.
  • These systems should not be used in situations they are not designed for and should not be relied upon as an alternative to safe and controlled driving.
  • Different manufacturers have implemented different approaches to the application of driver assistance technologies in terms of the level of assistance given to the driver.
  • Euro NCAP’s tests assess and highlight these differences and the varying degree of driver support each manufacturer provides.

Sure, all of us smart people reading this site know this, but we’re by no means everyone. I can say we’ll keep trying to do our best to portray these systems with as much reality and candor as we can.