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AAA study tests the limits of driver-assist systems

September 16, 2020

Partnered with AAA Northern California, Nevada & Utah

Two cars driving on a highway in traffic jam simulation

Traffic jam simulation, courtesy of AAANewsroom.

Active safety features in vehicles on the road today range from driver assistance systems, which require a driver to be constantly engaged, to fully autonomous vehicles which can function without the aid of a human driver. 

If human drivers believe their vehicle systems are more capable than they are, aren’t aware of their vehicle’s limitations, or are confused when they need to take over the driving task, this can pose tremendous risks. In fact, new research from the AAA Foundation indicates that the way automation technologies in cars are named or described can contribute to consumers overestimating a system’s capabilities and underestimating its limitations. 

Other research from AAA suggests why it’s so important to know the strengths and limitations of your vehicle’s driver assist features, which are included as standard on 10% of all new vehicles with a 2020 model year sold in the United States. Based on testing at AAA’s Northern California closed-course facility and in real-world scenarios, AAA automotive researchers found that vehicles with active driving assistance systems are not perfect and would benefit from rigorous testing.

Active driving assistance systems have room to improve

AAA emphasizes that active driving assistance systems (ADAS) such as lane departure warnings, adaptive cruise control, and collision avoidance systems are already contributing to a reduction in crash rates. According to an analysis conducted in 2018 by the AAA Foundation, if ADAS were installed on all vehicles, they could potentially help prevent or mitigate about 40% of all passenger vehicle crashes.

However, AAA asserts these systems could benefit from more testing. Researchers tested five vehicles with advanced driver assistance systems over 4,000 miles. Based on the SAE International standard of autonomous driving levels, all tested vehicles were classified as Level 2, which means the features assist with steering, acceleration and braking but require the driver to be able to take control of driving at any moment.  

ADAS features are far from perfect

AAA researchers found that the test vehicles experienced an issue every eight miles, on average. Issues included coming too close to guardrails or other vehicles, colliding with disabled vehicles, and disengaging with little notice. When a system disengages without the driver being aware, it can create dangerous scenarios. 

“Manufacturers need to work toward more dependable technology, including improving lane keeping assistance and providing more adequate alerts,” said Aldo Vazquez, spokesman for AAA Arizona.

Systems not good at avoiding collisions with disabled vehicles

As a traffic safety advocate and roadside assistance provider, AAA has long been working to raise awareness about the importance of reducing fatalities and injuries to those working alongside the road, such as first responders and tow truck drivers. With this in mind, AAA wanted to test how the vehicles with ADAS performed around vehicles that were disabled on the side of the road. Would they be able to avoid collisions? 

Importantly, AAA notes that the owner’s manuals for all of the vehicles tested state that the vehicles with these Level 2 ADAS may not react when a disabled vehicle is not completely within the travel lane (i.e., if it is parked partially off the road.) That being said, AAA still wanted to test how the systems performed in a scenario where  the driver may have a “reasonable expectation” that the system would be able to avoid a collision. 

That is not the case. When encountering a disabled vehicle in a test scenario, a collision occurred 66% of the time. 

“This illustrates that tested ADA systems cannot be trusted to consistently react to stopped vehicles either within or alongside the roadway,” AAA states in its full evaluation of active driving assistance systems. “As such, drivers must maintain awareness of their surroundings and control of the vehicle at all times.”

More testing, better education key to improving ADAS

After completing its testing, which was conducted in partnership with the Automobile Club of Southern California’s Automotive Research Center and AAA Northern California, Nevada and Utah’s GoMentum Station proving grounds, AAA recommended that manufactures expand their testing of ADAS and not roll them out until they are able to improve the quality and consistency of their performance. 

All this, AAA emphasizes, is important for providing a safe driver experience. AAA Northern California, Nevada and Utah is a partner of the public education campaign for autonomous vehicles Let’s Talk Self-Driving. 

Let’s Talk Self-Driving also includes Waymo, a fully autonomous vehicle technology company which has emphasized its commitment to rigorous testing Waymo has driven 20 million miles on public roads to help ensure its vehicles can handle the core competencies of everyday driving without the aid of a human driver.

Let’s Talk Self-Driving works to raise awareness about the different levels of autonomy in vehicles and why it is so important for consumers to know the difference between driver assist features and fully autonomous systems.