The long road towards autonomous vehicles just hit another speed bump.
Despite lofty performance promises from carmakers seeking an autonomous future, recent testing from AAA revealed “inconsistent performance” with more basic active driving assistance (ADA) that resulted in vehicles crashing repeatedly into cars and a bicycles.
Head-on collisions occurred during each and every one of AAA’s 15 tests featuring oncoming vehicles in a traffic lane, sending test dummies hurling through the air and foam test cars crumbling. Only one vehicle, a Tesla, Model 3, actually managed to significantly reduce its speed before eventually crashing into an oncoming vehicle traveling within its lane, Reuters notes. The test vehicles slammed into a cyclist crossing a travel line in a third of the tests.
Reflecting on the results, AAA said the collisions point to the need for constant human attention while drivers have their systems engaged, something evangelists like Tesla CEO Elon Musk have injected with confusion. The systems overall performed without incident during normal driving situations, but crashed repeatedly during less frequent “edge cases.” In reality, though, these edge cases occur regularly during an average day of driving.
“While it may be encouraging that these driving systems successfully spotted slow-moving cars and bicyclists in the same lane, the failure to spot a crossing bike rider or an oncoming vehicle is alarming,” Greg Brannon, AAA’s Director of Automotive Engineering said. “A head-on crash is the deadliest kind, and these systems should be optimized for the situations where they can help the most.”
The tests were conducted on a closed test course using a 2021 Subaru Forester, 2021 Hyundai Santa Fe, and a 2020 Tesla Model 3. Each of these models features its own driver assistance technology capable of attaining Level 2 autonomy. Though Tesla’s Autopilot ADA features performed better than competitors in the AAA test, it still crashed repeatedly. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration launched a formal investigation into Autopilot last year following numerous reports of cars equipped with the feature reportedly launching themselves into first responder vehicles.
In a statement, AAA urged automakers to address performance and safety issues in currently available driver assistance features before moving on to more advanced driverless tech.
“You can’t sell consumers on the future if they don’t trust the present,” Brannon added. “And drivers tell us they expect their current driving assistance technology to perform safely all the time. But unfortunately, our testing demonstrates spotty performance is the norm rather than the exception.”
This week’s less-than-stellar results could put a damper on Musk’s reported vision of widespread autonomy. Musk, known for overpromising, has promised widespread autonomous vehicle adoption is just around a year away every year since at least 2014. Anyone with a driver’s license knows those projections haven’t quite panned out. Still, that hasn’t stopped Musk from continuing on with the lofty predictions. Just last month, Musk told investors Tesla is aspiring to reach production volume on an autonomous robotaxi by 2024.
“That really will be a massive driver of Tesla’s growth,” Musk said.
Outside Tesla though, there are signs the AV landscape is preparing for a change. Earlier this year the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration updated its safety rules to no longer require manual driving controls for autonomous vehicles to pass crash test standards, a big win for autonomous car makers. Under those new rules, vehicles built specifically with autonomy in mind no longer need to ship with driver’s seats and steering wheels.
Rule changes or not though, autonomous vehicle makers still haven’t truly found a way to sell the general public on the tech’s safety and reliability. Continuing poor test performances won’t make that sell any easier. In a recent Pew Research poll, just 26% of U.S. adults said they thought widespread use of driverless cars was good for society compared to 44% who said it was bad. Nearly two-thirds (63%) said they wouldn’t want to ride in a driverless car if given the opportunity while an overwhelming majority (87%) said they believed driverless car tech should be tested with higher safety standards than traditional vehicles.