Worried About Autopilot? Driver Assistance Is Going Mainstream

The fatal crash last month of a Tesla on Autopilot hasn’t raised drawn quite as much attention as the accident during the same week involving an Uber self-driving car. But it may prove more relevant in the next few years, because advanced driver assistance systems are likely to show up on more streets and highways than self-driving cars.

A federal investigation of an earlier fatal crash of a Tesla on Autopilot noted that the system had worked as designed. The latest incident is still being investigated.

Unlike autonomous cars, vehicles with Autopilot and other advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) always have a human driver who is responsible for controlling the car. But like self-driving cars, vehicles with ADAS rely on sensors, cameras and software to identify and respond to objects and road markings, sometimes in emergencies.

And critics say drivers may be lulled into thinking they can look away from the road when ADAS is working. Some systems, including Autopilot, use in-car sensors to detect whether the driver is alert.

Federal investigators are still studying the crash that killed Walter Huang, 38, on a freeway lane divider near Mountain View, Calif. Tesla noted in a March 30 blog post that the Autopilot system on the Tesla Model X was activated at the time of the crash and Huang’s hands hadn’t been on the steering wheel in the six seconds before the accident. Alarms in the vehicle had warned Huang to take control of the car, according to Tesla.

Late Monday, Tesla CEO Elon Musk defended that disclosure, which the National Traffic Safety Board had criticized because it wasn’t informed first. On Twitter, Musk downplayed the NTSB’s role.

Tesla introduced Autopilot in 2015 as a software upgrade to cars already on the road. It includes automatic emergency braking, adaptive cruise control to stay a certain distance behind the car ahead, automatic steering based on lane markers, and the ability to change lanes and pass other cars in some cases. But Tesla warns owners that the feature is not a self-driving system and requires the driver to be alert and active at all times.

Like other automakers and transportation providers, Tesla says it will offer self-driving capability in the future. Shipping Teslas have the hardware for self-driving, in the form of built-in cameras, radar, ultrasonic sensors and other components, according to the company.

But Autopilot is what Tesla has now, and an increasing number of other vehicles are coming equipped with advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) with similar capabilities.

Market research firm Grand View Research predicted in a report earlier this year that the global ADAS market, estimated at $14.5 billion per year in 2016, would grow by an average of 19% per year until 2025.

The trend began with high-end marques such as Mercedes and Cadillac, as well as Tesla, but ADAS is now coming in nearly every class of car. Toyota, Hyundai, Subaru and other automakers introduced cars with ADAS features last week at the New York International Auto Show.

They included Toyota’s 2019 Corolla Hatchback and its Rav4 SUV, the best-selling non-pickup vehicle in the US last year. The standard features on the new Toyotas will include adaptive cruise control, automatic lane-centering and lane departure assistance, pedestrian detection, emergency braking and street sign detection. Toyota cautioned that these features aren’t substitutes for attentive driving.

— Stephen Lawson is a freelance writer based in San Francisco. Follow him on Twitter @sdlawsonmedia.

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