Clarity needed on autonomous driving capabilities, says TRL11 August 2016

Autonomous and semi-autonomous vehicles are in the headlines again, after a Tesla car crashed in China last week, with the driver claiming it was sold as ‘self-driving’ and Tesla countering that it was, in fact, in autopilot mode and the driver should have had contact with the steering wheel.

Richard Cuerden, chief scientist, engineering & technology at the UK’s Transport Research Laboratory (TRL) says the incident highlights issues around the use of automated systems, “particularly in cases where the driver is still required to remain alert and attentive at the controls of the vehicle”.

“The Society of Automotive Engineers currently specifies five levels of automation,” says Cuerden. “Tesla’s autopilot system is classified as level two automation, which means the driver is required to maintain alertness and be ready at the controls, even in autopilot mode.”

This presents challenges, he says, as drivers need to be aware of the vehicle’s capabilities and understand how control shifts between the driver and the vehicle in different modes of automated operation.

He warns: “We are going to see more collisions like this where, for whatever reason, the driver and the technology didn’t identify and react to the threat.”

Cuerden says projects, such as Move UK, which compare the behaviour of automated systems to human drivers, can help: “By understanding what went wrong and why, we can quickly teach collision avoidance systems to better predict any risks in real life environments.

“At the same time, it’s vital that drivers of vehicles with automated functionality remain aware and follow the instructions provided by the manufacturer, so that incidents like the one in China can be avoided as we discover more about this new technology.”

Laura Cork

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