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Drivers shouldn't use driver-assistance tech like autopilot, group warns

The future of self-driving cars
The state of self-driving cars 08:17

Although Americans can't yet buy a fully autonomous vehicle, some motorists are treating technologies that take on some of the chores of driving like their personal chauffeur, according to a new study from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Such tech can help keep your car from drifting into another lane, for example, but that doesn't mean you should catch up on email from behind the wheel. Yet drivers who use partial automation on a regular basis often operate their vehicles as if they were fully self-driving, the group said.

Those with Cadillac Super Cruise, Nissan/Infiniti ProPILOT Assist and Tesla Autopilot are more likely to eat or text while using the partial automation systems than they would driving unassisted, according to the results released on Tuesday by IIHS. 

The findings are based on surveys of about 600 Cadillac, Nissan/Infiniti and Tesla owners who make regular use of their vehicle's partial automation system. Alarmingly, 53% of Super Cruise users, 42% of Autopilot users and 12% of ProPILOT Assist users said they were comfortable using their vehicles as fully self-driving.

The results underscore the need for multifaceted safeguards, according to Alexandra Mueller, an IIHS research scientist and lead author of the study. 

"Many of these drivers said they had experiences where they had to suddenly take over the driving because the automation did something unexpected, sometimes while they were doing something they were not supposed to," Mueller said in a statement.

Much of the driver-assist technology available today is designed to help with highway driving, with features like adaptive cruise control keeping the vehicle traveling at a set speed, slowing and accelerating automatically to maintain a set distance from other cars, IIHS noted. 

At the same time, lane centering systems offer steering support to help keep the vehicle in the middle of the road. Some systems are able to change lanes and other advanced maneuvers.

But "over-trusting either hands-free or hands-on-wheel partial automation can lead drivers to not intervene even when they see a hazardous situation forming in front of them because they incorrectly believe the system can handle more than it was designed to do," IIHS said in the report. 

"Poor understanding"

Yet none of the systems now in use are designed to replace a human driver or make it safe for a driver to do other things and take their eyes off the road. 

"Early adopters of these systems still have a poor understanding of the technology's limits," David Harkey, president of IIHS said in a statement. "It's possible that system design and marketing are adding to these misconceptions."

For instance, TV commercials for Cadillac's Super Cruise system touts its hands-free capabilities by showing drivers patting their laps and clapping their hands along with a song, IIHS noted. The name Autopilot also implies Tesla's system is more capable than it actually is, while ProPILOT Assist signals it's an assistance feature, not a replacement for the driver, the group added.

"Nissan is clearly communicating ProPILOT Assist as a system to aid the driver, and it requires hands-on operation. The driver maintains control of the vehicle at all times," the automaker stated in an email.

Tesla did not respond to a request for comment.

GM said it is "critical" for drivers to remain in control, noting that such engagement is "required to operate any advanced driver assistance system in any vehicle we sell," a spokesperson stated in an email.

GM's Driver Attention System is designed to ensure a motorist's attention is on the road during hands-free driving by monitoring the driver's head position and gaze in relation to the road, the automaker said.

"When the system detects the driver isn't paying attention, a series of escalations will prompt the driver to reengage. When using Super Cruise, the driver is responsible for operating the vehicle in a safe manner and must remain attentive to traffic, surroundings and road conditions at all times," GM said.

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