Experts from Consumer Reports have again tested systems for semi-autonomous driving. Tesla's autopilot ends up only in the middle. Driver monitoring is proving to be a key technology.
Consumer Reports is an independent US consumer protection organization that also regularly examines the capabilities of cars. The test experts had already compared the driver assistance systems of different car manufacturers in 2020. Back then, GM's Super Cruise narrowly beat Tesla's Autopilot. One of the key takeaways for GM's Victory over Tesla was better monitoring of driver alertness. At the end of 2022, Consumer Reports compared the models from twelve manufacturers - compared to 2020, the rankings have shifted significantly in some cases. The new winner is Ford's BlueCruise, followed by GM's Super Cruise - Tesla's autopilot takes seventh out of twelve.
The systems for semi-autonomous driving are essentially based on a combination of adaptive cruise control and a lane keeping assistant. The Consumer Reports testers only tested vehicles that allow the simultaneous use of these two systems. In addition, certain parameters had to be met - such as reaching a minimum speed. Mazda models did not meet the required requirements. Suitably equipped vehicles from Jaguar/Land Rover, Lucid, Porsche, Stellantis (Alfa Romeo, Chrysler, Dodge, Fiat, Jeep, Ram) and Subaru were not available to the testers at the time of the comparison.
Fully autonomous driving far away
Models from the following manufacturers competed against each other in the test: BMW, Ford/Lincoln, GM (Chevrolet/GMC/Cadillac), Honda/Acura, Hyundai/Kia/Genesis, Mercedes, Nissan/Infiniti, Rivian , Tesla, Toyota/Lexus, Volvo/Polestar and VW/Audi. Between September and December 2022, Consumer Reports tested the assistance systems at its 327-acre auto proving ground in Connecticut, USA, and on a 50-mile loop (80 kilometers) of public traffic. The 40 separate tests per vehicle included steering, speed control, driver safety and driver monitoring.
Ford's BlueCruise (Lincoln: ActiveGlide) convinced the testers the most - with an 84-point rating, BlueCruise leaves its competitors far behind. Jake Fisher, Head of Autotest at Consumer Reports, emphasizes that assistance systems can make driving safer. However, the systems do not enable fully autonomous driving - these capabilities are still a long way off. And if the driver does certain things wrong, driving with such systems is dangerous.
Tesla's autopilot is not state-of-the-art
According to the Consumer Report experts, the fact that Tesla disappoints with seventh place is due to the fact that the Tesla engineers have not changed the basic functionality of the autopilot for years, only new ones added features. Fisher complains that the autopilot does not enable sufficiently cooperative driving and that driver monitoring is still insufficient. The competition has long since rushed ahead of Tesla in this regard.
The problem with assistance systems intended for semi-autonomous driving is that they make the driver feel safe. Pnina Gershon, research associate at the MIT AgeLab in Boston and the MIT Center for Transportation & Logistics (MIT: Massachusetts Institute of Technology) has evaluated research data that shows that drivers have an excessively high level of trust in the assistance systems even after a short period of use. Gershon warns that people who drive with the assistance systems switched on are significantly less attentive on the road than drivers who cannot rely on such technology. "Automation aims to free up resources, and not surprisingly drivers use these 'freed up' resources for things other than driving," concludes Gershon. That's why seamless driver monitoring is so important.
Increasing importance of driver monitoring
Ford and GM get the most points in this driver monitoring. Both use infrared cameras to monitor whether the driver is keeping their eyes on the traffic situation. If the technology detects a loss of attention, it alerts the driver. If he then fails to respond, the system slows the vehicle down. The safety experts from Consumer Reports assume that such a Direct Driver Monitoring System (DDMS) is the key to a functional driving assistance system package. From autumn 2023, they will give the DDMS a much higher weight than before in such tests.
The testers found that many systems do not monitor the driver adequately - for some, briefly touching the steering wheel is still sufficient. Kelly Funkhouser, Consumer Reports' vehicle technology manager, cautions that it's very easy to touch the steering wheel without looking at the road. Funkhouser also finds it worrying that some manufacturers are making the intervals for hands-free driving too long. He explicitly names the third-placed Mercedes with its driver assistance system and Tesla, both of which enable 30 seconds of semi-autonomous driving before the driver has to put his hand on the steering wheel again. Funkhouser worries that the driver could sit back half a mile (805 meters) on the freeway without paying attention to the traffic.
German manufacturers with very good results
In the assistance system test by Consumer Reports , the German manufacturers did very well overall: while Mercedes came in third place behind Ford and GM, BMW is fourth and VW is sixth behind Toyota. Tesla in seventh place has 61 points, just two points more than the electric start-up Rivian. Nissan and Honda follow in ninth and tenth, while Volvo comes in eleventh and Hyundai brings up the rear with 47 points.
In the meantime, scientific studies have proven it: after a short time, driver assistance systems ensure that drivers trust them excessively and consequently pay less attention to road traffic than without such systems. Assistance systems can only improve safety if they monitor the driver's attention permanently and effectively. Driver monitoring, including alerting and slowing down of the vehicle if inattentiveness is detected, also ensures that the driver does not see the assistance technology as a gain in comfort, but as an additional level of safety.
Ford and GM win the comparison because their systems work well and the technology adequately monitors the driver. The German manufacturers also do well, with Mercedes in third place, BMW in four and VW in six. Tesla seems to be sleeping through the developments and crashes to seventh place with its autopilot system.