Fleet managers need to communicate limitations of self-driving technology
Fleet managers need to develop policies to communicate the self-driving capabilities and limitations of autonomous vehicles to company car and van drivers, according to safety experts.
They warn that confusion over what a vehicle can and cannot do, as well as a gap in understanding about national driving laws, could increase the risks to drivers.
A survey of 2,000 drivers in the UK by Thatcham Research, the motor insurers’ automotive research centre, found that perception is racing ahead of reality in terms of driver knowledge about self-driving cars. The study found that 52% of drivers mistakenly believing that fully autonomous driving is possible today; a figure that rises to 72% in the US.
Last week (August 28, 2023), Ford announced that it had secured approval from the Kraftfahrt-Bundesamt (KBA), the federal motor transport authority, for drivers to use its BlueCruise technology on certain sections of major roads in Germany.
The hands-free system is available in the Mustang Mach-E (pictured top) and is classified as Level 2 autonomy. It monitors road markings, speed signs and traffic conditions to control steering, acceleration, braking and lane positioning at speeds of up to 130km/h, maintaining a safe and consistent distance to vehicles ahead.
BlueCruise was approved for use in April in the UK, where the Government has set out new legislation which will allow for the rollout of self-driving vehicles by 2025.
Watch a film
Last year, Mercedes-Benz launched the even more advanced DRIVE PILOT (pictured below), classified as Level 3 autonomy, for its E-Class and S-Class models in Germany, where 13,191km of motorway are approved for conditionally automated driving. DRIVE PILOT allows the driver to disengage from driving and send emails, surf the internet, play games or even watch a film at speeds of up to 60km/h.
Tom Leggett, Vehicle Technology Specialist at Thatcham Research, said: “The perception of automation is the biggest risk to address first. We need consumer education about how and when to use these systems, but also what these systems can’t do. This is not talked about very much by vehicle manufacturers and technology developers.
“It’s extremely hard to explain to a driver that on the motorway you can press a button, take your hands off the wheel and your feet off the pedals, and the car will do everything for you, but the car isn’t self-driving. The driver is still responsible, and legally in charge of the vehicle. This is the hardest thing we still have to communicate about this technology, and the only way to do it is with really high quality driver training and information.”
He praised the explanations of BlueCruise in the Mustang Mach-E’s manual and online videos, but reminded fleet managers that drivers do not have a reliable record of reading manuals thoroughly. This increases the need for clear fleet communication and instruction to avoid any risk of driver misinterpretation.
Drivers must be ready to retake control
Regulations insist that drivers should be able to take back control from both the Ford and Mercedes-Benz systems. Ford’s BlueCruise includes a driver-facing camera to monitor the driver’s gaze in order to ensure their attention remains focused on the road. Failure to pay attention leads to warning messages, audible alerts, braking, and eventually the slowing of the vehicle to standstill.
With the rapid development of assisted driving systems, Euro NCAP, which assesses the collision avoidance and crash protection technology in new cars, has started to warn manufacturers of the need to be clear about the limits of the capabilities of their technology.
Tesla’s Autopilot, for example, performs brilliantly in track tests, but its name suggests to drivers that it is self-driving, and Euro NCAP only awarded a ‘Moderate’ grading to the Alfa Romeo Tonale Active Driving Assist system due to: “Misleading references to automation,” despite the technology performing well.
The dangers of misunderstanding driver assist technologies are further increased by the changes to vehicle functionality made possible by over-the-air updates, according to Jonathan Dye, head of underwriting at insurer QBE.
“With some models likely to have the self-driving technology as ‘optional’, or as an ‘over the air update’, meaning it would be possible to change a vehicle’s capabilities overnight, it’s imperative the driver has a full and clear understanding of the vehicle’s limitations post update,” he said.
Dye added that drivers, and by extension fleets, also need to ensure they are adequately protected by an appropriate insurance policy when they adopt self-driving technologies.
Images: Ford, Mercedes-Benz