2021 Cadillac Escalade with Super Cruise
2021 Cadillac Escalade with Super Cruise

Federal lawmakers and the auto industry are pushing for better driver monitoring in cars equipped with active driver assistance (PDF) features, such as adaptive cruise control (ACC) with steering assist. The Alliance for Automotive Innovation—a trade group that represents manufacturers—announced today that it wants better safeguards against driver inattention in vehicles with technology that some experts say can lead to complacency and lack of focus for some drivers.

Sens. Ed Markey, D-Mass., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., also introduced legislation (PDF) Monday that would commission research into driver inattention and the misuse of advanced driver assistance technology, direct the Department of Transportation to establish performance standards for driver monitoring systems, and require the systems to be installed on all new passenger vehicles.

The announcements came in the wake of a fatal Tesla crash April 17, when a Model S that a local law enforcement official said was possibly driverless veered off of a winding road near Houston and collided with a tree, killing the two vehicle occupants. 

But during Tesla’s earnings call Monday night, Lars Moravy, Tesla vice president of vehicle engineering, said an examination of the wreckage with local and federal authorities over the ensuing week found that the driver’s steering wheel was “deformed,” leading to a likelihood that someone was in the driver seat at the time of the crash. 

Harris County Constable Mark Herman, who originally said last week he was almost 99.9 percent sure that no one was in the driver seat at the time of the crash, declined to comment Monday, saying the case was still under investigation.

The puzzling possibility that there was no human driver prompted Consumer Reports to assess whether Autopilot could be used with no one in the driver seat using our own Model Y. CR testers found that Autopilot could be used without a driver or any weight on the driver seat. But as Jake Fisher, senior director of CR’s Auto Test Center, points out, the lack of adequate driver monitoring is not unique to Tesla. 

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Tesla’s cars, along with those from a majority of other automakers, use an indirect method to determine driver engagement, relying only on steering wheel torque—which prompts the driver to apply a small amount of pressure on the steering wheel. It can be easily tricked, and even if the driver’s hand are on the wheel, the vehicle has no way of knowing whether the driver is paying attention and looking at the road. Other manufacturers, including Nissan and Volvo, also could benefit from adding basic safeguards to their automation systems to monitor whether the driver is paying attention and looking at the road, according to CR’s experts. 

“Many vehicles are now equipped with systems similar to Tesla’s that do not adequately ensure that the driver is paying attention,” Fisher says. “Right now, there are no true self-driving cars on the market, so it is imperative that cars with active driver assistance systems have driver monitoring systems that can tell if the driver is looking at the road.”

By contrast, General Motors has a camera-based driver monitoring system in place in the Super Cruise driver assistance system now available on some Cadillac and Chevrolet models. In Consumer Reports’ testing, the system did a good job of monitoring head position and ensuring that the driver’s eyes were on the road—even if the driver wore sunglasses.  

“The camera in the Super Cruise system isn’t perfect, but it is currently the best we’ve tested on cars with these capabilities,” says Kelly Funkhouser, the head of CR’s connected and automated vehicle testing program. “We’re hoping to see driver monitoring systems soon that detect if drivers are truly paying attention to the road, scanning their entire surroundings, and checking the system’s performance.”

In today’s statement, the Alliance says that there is often confusion among consumers about the capabilities of various driver assistance systems. Although automakers, tech companies, and regulators are working on the technology and the legal framework that could one day make it possible for properly equipped cars to drive themselves without human intervention, there is nothing like that on the market now. SAE International—formerly the Society of Automotive Engineers—has six classifications for driving automation, from Level 0, in which there is no autonomy, to Level 5, in which a vehicle can drive itself without human intervention. Currently, Level 2—which includes driver assistance features like the combination of ACC and steering assistance that still require the driver to pay attention to the road—is the highest level of driving automation available to consumers. Manufacturers seem to have overlooked this important detail in their implementation. Still, Tesla calls its driver assistance system “Autopilot” and labels its artificial intelligence-enabled features “Full Self-Driving.”

“Automakers have a responsibility to be clear about the capabilities and limitations of the technology they offer,” Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., said in an email to Consumer Reports. (Dingell is on the U.S. House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee, which fields legislation related to vehicle safety and driving automation.) “These vehicles are not Level 5 autonomous vehicles, but they are being billed as such. This adds to consumer confusion and risk-taking that puts them in unnecessary danger.”

The Alliance’s announcement comes with a set of principles that the group says should accompany Level 2 driving automation. Along with standard driver monitoring, the Alliance says that there should be escalating auditory and sensory driver warnings and that the vehicle should be able to automatically take corrective action—such as slowing down or bringing the vehicle to a complete stop—if the driver doesn’t reengage with the vehicle controls within a set period of time. The Alliance also says that automakers should consider installing an in-vehicle camera as a part of a driver monitoring system, particularly for more advanced driver assistance systems. 

“Effective driver monitoring systems can yield significant safety benefits, and we’re glad to see the auto industry recognize that publicly,” says William Wallace, CR’s manager of safety policy. “Companies should build on these helpful principles by supporting the development of performance standards. These rules of the road should include strong privacy protections, and specifically lay out which systems ensure a driver is paying attention, and which ones do not.”

There is strong evidence that camera-based driver monitoring works, says Bryan Reimer, who heads up the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Advanced Vehicle Technology Consortium, an academic-industry partnership supported by Consumer Reports.

“The AVT Consortium has been collecting naturalistic data from vehicles with and without camera-based driver monitoring systems for several years,” Reimer says, adding that camera-based monitoring systems, paired with escalating inattentiveness warnings, help shorten the amount of time distracted drivers take their eyes away from the road. Reimer called for camera-based systems in Level 2-equipped vehicles last year, and he says the principles highlighted in the Alliance’s statement are a good basis for improving motor vehicle safety.

Editor’s Note: This story has been changed to include new information from Tesla about an April 17 crash of a Model S that killed the vehicle’s two occupants.