The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) announced last week its intention to start assigning ratings to semi-autonomous driving systems like Tesla’s Autopilot, GM’s Super Cruise, and Ford’s new BlueCruise. The non-governmental organization isn’t in a position to ban any of the systems, or issue recalls or guidelines for operation, but the IIHS has an incredible amount of persuading power in the US auto industry.
The IIHS has not yet made public the criteria by which it will rate manufacturers’ semi-autonomous driving systems, most of which currently fall into the SAE’s “Level 2” autonomy category. However, in a press release, the group did reveal that no system currently on the market “meets all the pending IIHS criteria,” despite whatever safeguards manufacturers have implemented.
“Partial automation systems may make long drives seem like less of a burden, but there is no evidence that they make driving safer,” says IIHS President David Harkey, signaling that the group will likely be tough on existing semi-autonomous driving features.
Difference In Opinion
We imagine Elon Musk might take umbrage with the IIHS’s assessment. Tesla maintains that its semi-autonomous driving tech is an overall boon to safety, helping reduce the likelihood of a crash when active. The company tracks user data and publishes it on the company website; the most recent manufacturer data, from Q4 2021, reveals that there was one crash per 4.31 million miles driven with Autopilot engaged. Without Autopilot active, the company recorded one Tesla crash per 1.59 million miles.
Both figures are better than the one crash per 484,000 miles driven for all makes and models, recorded by the NHTSA.
Yet the IIHS has indicated that it does not look particularly kindly on Tesla’s semi-autonomous driving technology, and especially the deceptively named “Full Self-Driving” feature suite. The name, and the many ways the system can be abused, have come under fire from a range of observers. That includes politicians, some of whom have urged investigations into Tesla’s automation tech and asked the automaker to rename the system.
Ultimately, there’s very little the IIHS can actually do directly to force automakers to design more responsible semi-autonomous driving systems, but that’s not the point. In fact, the group isn’t even planning on evaluating systems on how effectively they can automate the driving task. Instead, the IIHS will focus on “[encouraging] safeguards that can help reduce intentional and unintentional misuse,” like more robust driver alertness monitoring and proactive driver alerts.
Rating semi-autonomous driving systems is a very logical next step for the IIHS; the technology is still relatively new, so automakers don’t yet have all the kinks worked out. And as the world inches closer to fully autonomous driving, evaluating semi-autonomous systems could give the IIHS a way to start developing a framework for judging those systems.