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Cars are improving on their own, but you still can’t sit and take a nap

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A Waymo van travels along a city street on an autonomous vehicle ride April 7 in Chandler, Arizona. Waymo, a unit of Google’s parent company, Alphabet Inc., is one of several companies testing driverless vehicles in the United States. driving technology, but it still requires human drivers to take over when needed.

Ross D. Franklin / AP

If you do a lot of car trips during the holiday season, you might have wished your car could just drive to Grandma’s house.

The auto industry has been working on autonomous driving for years. And companies like Waymo and Cruise are testing fully autonomous driving – in some cities you can already get in a taxi without a driver.

But if you want a truly self-driving car, you’re out of luck.

Yes, vehicles have better control of their own direction and acceleration in more situations.

But despite all the fancy names used by automakers, the technology is still far from the point where the car can handle all the driving while you take a nap – a distinction drivers should keep in mind.

“There are exactly no self-driving cars available for purchase, anywhere in the world today, from any manufacturer,” said Sam Abuelsamid, senior analyst at Guidehouse Insights.

Hands on the wheel, but eyes on the road

Take the General Motors Super Cruise. It is one of many confusingly named “advanced driver assistance systems” that allow cars to control their own direction and / or acceleration.

And it’s one of the few systems that allows a driver to actually – safely – remove their hands from the wheel on the road. For now, the feature is only available on certain highways; it relies on a combination of GPS, high precision maps, cameras and radars.

When in operation, the vehicle can automatically control its speed and direction without the driver having to touch a pedal or the steering wheel. It might sound pretty close to dreaming of a car that can drive for you.

But technology doesn’t work 100% of the time – and it doesn’t pretend to.

When a vehicle with Super Cruise encounters a situation that it finds confusing, such as a construction zone or a stretch of highway where its card is lacking in data, it returns control to the driver.

The car signals its need for assistance by flashing red lights on the steering wheel, and on some vehicles, by vibrations in the driver’s seat.

And if something unexpected happens on the road, the driver is supposed to be ready to take control in an instant.

A Domino's Pizza autonomous delivery vehicle is shown on July 22 in Houston, Texas.  Companies from all walks of life, from food delivery restaurants to trucking, are considering driverless technology.

A Domino’s Pizza autonomous delivery vehicle is shown on July 22 in Houston, Texas. Companies from all walks of life, from food delivery restaurants to trucking, are considering driverless technology.

Brandon Bell / Getty Images

Because the car needs help from time to time, the driver should be careful all time.

“Humans are still responsible for driving, even when your hands are free,” said Ron Arneson, executive chief engineer for automated driving and active safety programs at GM.

GM doesn’t assume that people will act responsibly and be careful.

There’s a camera built into the steering column that tracks the driver’s eyes – even behind sunglasses – to make sure they stay on the road. If the driver’s gaze wanders, the vehicle gradually emits alarming buzzes, flashes and alarms, and eventually refuses to drive.

It’s a critical safety feature, Arneson says, because GM knows Super Cruise won’t be able to handle all road situations.

“If you’re still careful,” he said, “you can take over in a split second if you need to. “

Even “fully autonomous driving” requires human supervision

Tesla, more than any other automaker, has heavily commercialized the idea of ​​a car that can truly drive itself.

Its “Autopilot” driver assistance technology is a major selling point for vehicles.

And a small number of drivers can now try out the long-promised “Full Self-Driving” software, which allows a Tesla to navigate ordinary city roads on its own – handling bends, waiting at traffic lights. and responding appropriately to sometimes unpredictable behavior. other vehicles and pedestrians.

Hypothetically.

For now, Tesla’s technology still requires a human to have their hands on the wheel and their eyes on the road, although it is called “fully autonomous driving.”

“I like to keep my foot, like, hovering between the accelerator and the brakes,” said Victoria Scruggs, owner of Tesla which is part of the beta test. “You really don’t know what it’s going to do sometimes. “

In a recent test drive with Scruggs, his Model 3 drove perfectly reasonably at some intersections. At others, he hesitated, or moved with strange jerks, or stopped halfway and put Scruggs back in charge.

Scruggs says a previous version of the software swerved so aggressively down the wrong path that it actually injured his wrist.

In general, she says, her Tesla can handle highways very well. It can go straight through city streets, she adds.

“But when you throw corners into the mix it’s a little bit uncertain,” she said.

On city streets, software makes driving more stressful, not less, she says. And as Tesla’s beta tester, she uses it not to make her life easier, but to collect more data to help the company improve the software.

Tesla’s marketing and deployment of this technology is controversial.

Tesla’s more limited autopilot technology, which only handles simple driving tasks and is less erratic, has been implicated in fatal crashes and multiple incidents in which it did not appear to recognize emergency vehicles.

Safety advocates fear Tesla drivers are relying too much on autopilot, assuming the technology will work better than it does.

They also criticized “Autopilot” and “Full Self-Driving” as dangerously misleading names, and voiced concerns that Tesla was testing experimental software on public roads.

Tesla, which has been criticized for overstating the capabilities of its software, included a rather blunt warning for drivers testing the “fully autonomous driving” features. He warns he could do “the wrong thing at the worst time.”

The more cars get better, the harder they are to watch

While no personal vehicle is fully autonomous, the amount of driving these systems can handle on their own is impressive, compared to what was available on the market just a few years ago.

And it’s not just state-of-the-art Cadillacs and Tesla’s that have made significant strides in this area.

Kelly Funkhouser, who leads automated vehicle testing for Consumer Reports, says car buyers might be surprised to learn how many new cars can make some drive for you.

Over 50% of new vehicle models can control speed and / or direction in highway driving situations, she says – even if they can’t navigate for you from start to finish, handle changes in gear. lane or allow you (hypothetically) to paint your nails on the highway.

High-tech driver assistance functions make driving, especially long motorway journeys, much easier. They certainly make it more enjoyable. And in some cases, such as when cars automatically brake to avoid an accident, they can have clear safety benefits.

Baidu Apollo Robotaxis travels through a Beijing street on May 2.  Chinese tech giant Baidu has rolled out its driverless paid taxi service, making it the first company to market autonomous driving operations in China.

Baidu Apollo Robotaxis travels through a Beijing street on May 2. Chinese tech giant Baidu has rolled out its driverless paid taxi service, making it the first company to market autonomous driving operations in China.

Andy Wong / AP

Yet these vehicles all require close human supervision to operate safely.

And the smarter our cars get, the harder it gets. Funkhouser says these driver assistance features make driving “even more boring”, and that worries him.

“It’s human nature, really, to just want to get away and find something exciting to do other than watch the car drive,” said Funkhouser. “It’s like watching the paint dry, isn’t it?” “

“That’s what worries us the most about these systems,” she said. “As they become more proficient, it’s easier for drivers to want to check in and find something else to do. “

In other words, you should always keep your eyes on the road on that long drive to Grandma’s house, no matter how boring it can get.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To learn more, visit https://www.npr.org.


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