Are today’s ‘autonomous’ cars really that clever?

Are today’s ‘autonomous’ cars really that clever?

Ryan Hirons heads to Thatcham Research’s centre to explore the misconceptions of today’s ‘driverless’ technology.

AUTONOMOUS cars are coming. As exciting and/or terrifying as that may sound, there’s a good chance that in the future we’ll all be travelling around in driverless vehicles.

It may sound like an age away, but driverless technology has come on in leaps and bounds over the past few years and we’re seemingly getting very close to just hopping into cars that can take us anywhere all by themselves. At least, that’s what manufacturers will want you to think.

We’ve been invited to Thatcham Research’s test centre in Berkshire to experience firsthand some of the misconceptions surrounding today’s ‘autonomous’ technology.

‘The technology is in advance of what the consumer understands and what the laws allow you to do,’ Matthew Avery, director of insurance research at Thatcham, tells us.

The firm, along with the Association of British Insurers, is urging manufacturers to deliver more clarity on what constitutes a ‘driverless’ feature and a ‘driving assistance’ feature.

On our second run in a Tesla Model S at Thatcham, the dark-coloured BMW 530e we were following made a very late manoeuvre at speed. As this series of pictures shows, our vehicle didn’t have time to read the hazard ahead – in the form of a car-shaped inflatable – and we ploughed straight into it

‘Manufacturers advertising self-driving cars in their literature isn’t a good thing,’ Avery continues. ‘I think the consumer needs to be brought in clearly step by step.’

Our first practical demonstration brings us to the passenger seat of a Tesla Model S 75D — perhaps the car best known for its ‘autonomous’ capabilities today. Just before setting off with its Autopilot mode in full swing, we’re alerted to the firm’s advertising of the feature online.

‘Full Self-Driving Capability’ reads the headline, with the promise of the car being able to match its speed to the traffic around it, automatically change lanes and self-park — among other things.

‘It asks me once to put my hands on the wheel and that’s it for the rest of the journey,’ states Avery as we reach a faux motorway in Autopilot mode — and a quick glance over to the dashboard proves he isn’t wrong.

As expected, the Tesla easily navigates itself between the clear white lines ahead of us – even when encountering a slight bend – but the big problem arises when those lines come to a sudden stop. Lost, it tries to pick out a path to follow on the blank tarmac before giving up and bringing itself to a gentle halt — but not without a rather jolty ride along the way.

‘We like that it brings itself to a stop — what we don’t like is that it hasn’t observed any input during the process, putting a potentially distracted driver and those around at risk,’ Avery said, more calmly in this environment than likely would’ve been the case on a busy highway.

It’s not only Tesla with this sort of issue, though. In fact, what was up next proved to be much more dangerous.

We hop into a BMW 530e fitted with ‘Driver Assist Plus’, which the German manufacturer describes as ‘partially autonomous driving’ — ‘partially’ proving the key word.

‘It’s better than the Tesla in that it asks every 15 seconds if my hands are on the wheel, but it’ll take any movement — so I only have to give the wheel a wiggle,’ observed Avery, once again in the driver’s seat.

We approach the same faux motorway as we did in the Tesla — only this time, as the car comes to the junction, it continues straight onwards across multiple lanes. In the real world, this would leave us facing the prospect of hitting a concrete barrier at speed. Not good, obviously.

Our final exercise for the day starts with us being told: ‘You’ll be safer in the back.’

Consider us excited (and a bit worried).

So, into the rear of the Tesla we climb. We follow the BMW with our Autopilot enabled, in a test designed to show how the Tesla would deal with a late lane change by the car in front.

Our first run sees the BMW peel away into the right-hand lane at a good distance from stopped traffic ahead — allowing the Tesla to read a parked car (actually in this case a soft Ford Fiesta-esque target built to mimic a car) early on, coming to a safe halt behind.

A good start, we think.

We approach the same situation again, only this time the 530e ahead makes a very late manoeuvre at speed — which could easily happen in the event of a sudden traffic jam. The Model S doesn’t have time to read the hazard itself — one that an attentive human could pick up — and flies straight into the back of the soft target.

It serves as a stark reminder that we’re still a long way from a full autonomous future — and just how informed consumers need to be about remaining attentive.

It’s poor enough that what happened occurred at a closed course, but on a public road? Disaster.

Full autonomy is coming, however, and the ‘autonomous’ technology on offer today is rapidly improving. For now, though, it’s clear that we’re a while off hopping into a car that we can pay no attention to while in the driver’s seat — and Thatcham’s message to manufacturers on clarity is something they should listen to.

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