Recent JD Power study highlights the misconceptions between autonomous features and a fully fledged autonomous car
I’ve spent years being a stickler for language when I believe it is vital to get it right. I won’t use the word “accident” because collisions and crashes are no such beast. “No fault” insurance is a misnomer, because there is always fault. And now we’re facing a new menace in the automotive world, when using the correct wording will have far-reaching implications both legally, and in casual use.
A car that sports autonomous features is not an autonomous car. The concepts cannot be used interchangeably, and to do so will cloud consumer knowledge and produce dangerous consequences – to the point that a few people have died in the past couple of months trusting Tesla’s Autopilot feature a little too much. Who’s to blame? Carmakers, advertising agencies, journalists and media. Everybody. Carmakers for wanting you to believe you’re getting more than you are, advertising that needs to lead with the shiniest bait, and media that is too often either fooled by both or too lazy to call them out. We are blurring a very dangerous line.
How easy is it to stumble? JD Powers released a study recently, exploring what impact drivers expect current automated safety features to have on their insurance rates. It’s a good question; if I splash out a lot of money for adaptive cruise control, front collision avoidance, pedestrian protection technology and all the cameras and sensors that should help avert crashes altogether, I should see a break on my insurance rates. 70 per cent of respondents agree, and want to see insurance companies respond accordingly. 40 per cent said they were willing to switch providers to chase discounts, which of course is the takeaway for a study like this.
The rest of the survey bullet points were standard fare, exploring why people opt for the features they do in a new car. But the last highlighted section stopped me.
“Personal Liability – Who’s at Fault in an Automated Vehicle Crash: Consumers are holding themselves to a high standard. Nearly 40% say that drivers have some responsibility when an accident does occur in an automated vehicle, compared to just 22% who say the OEMs or the manufactures of the autonomous sensor technology are to blame.”
I grabbed the phone and called study researcher Tom Super. I asked him exactly how they worded that last question. He told me JD Power has an internal standard regarding the wording of partially automated and highly automated features. I told him that last question was asking drivers about fault in an automated vehicle – which is neither of those things – in a survey about automated features. The question before that one asked respondents why they’d bought an automated car. More erosion.
“You’re right,” he said. We had a good conversation, and if he thought I was being pedantic, he didn’t show it. He admitted those who hold sway in the industry – like JD Power – have to be transparent and accurate in their wordings.
There is a strict guideline by SAE International (Society of Automotive Engineers) that defines the six levels of on-road motor vehicle automated driving systems. We’re seeing it referred to more and more as automotive technology rockets ahead, but it’s important.
Level 0 No Automation: the full-time performance by the human driver of all aspects of the dynamic driving task, even when enhanced by warning or intervention systems
Level 1 Driver Assistance: the driving mode-specific execution by a driver assistance system of either steering or acceleration/deceleration using information about the driving environment and with the expectation that the human driver perform all remaining aspects of the dynamic driving task
Level 2 Partial Automation: the driving mode-specific execution by one or more driver assistance systems of both steering and acceleration/ deceleration using information about the driving environment and with the expectation that the human driver perform all remaining aspects of the dynamic driving task
Level 3 Conditional Automation: the driving mode-specific performance by an automated driving system of all aspects of the dynamic driving task with the expectation that the human driver will respond appropriately to a request to intervene
Level 4 High Automation: the driving mode-specific performance by an automated driving system of all aspects of the dynamic driving task, even if a human driver does not respond appropriately to a request to intervene
Level 5 Full Automation: the full-time performance by an automated driving system of all aspects of the dynamic driving task under all roadway and environmental conditions that can be managed by a human driver
“If I’m in a Level 5 fully autonomous vehicle and it crashes,” I told Super, “I’m going to go with 100 per cent not my fault.” Right now, most of us drive cars that are in the Level 1 to 2 range. Some features are reaching up to Level 3, but we are nowhere close to walking into a showroom and buying a Level 5 car. If fully 40 per cent of people think they have liability in a car that might not even have a steering wheel (we’ve seen concept cars that will be Level 5, and no wheel is not news), but 22 per cent are comfortable placing all the blame on the technology, that tells me respondents were not interpreting that question the same way.
The insurance industry is usually playing catch up. It took years for them to figure out how to develop coverage for drivers using their personal vehicle for commercial use (Uber, Lyft). Cars are safer than ever but my rates are higher than ever. Nobody, including JD Power, knows how the insurance industry will have to evolve as OEMs remove more and more control from the driver.
But until then, we have to maintain rigid boundaries around words that shouldn’t be tossed around. Accident is one of them; autonomous is another.