It’s been a long road since the first electro-magnetic cruise control device was installed in cars in the 1950s. Now so-called “autonomous” cars are starting to hit the road, even if none fully live up to the name. Uber and Alphabet’s Waymo are among the companies driving millions of miles with their self-driving research vehicles hoping that one-day computers can take the wheel.
For now, smaller driving tasks are being automated, such as adaptive cruise control, lane-keeping assistance, and autonomous parallel parking. Consumer Reports, the US consumer-goods research nonprofit, tested eight vehicles from Cadillac, Infiniti, Tesla, and Volvo on its track to rank the performance, ease of use, and safety of their autonomous systems.
Cadillac’s Super Cruise system came in first. Its adaptive cruise control did well at accelerating and slowing in response to road conditions, and kept the car comfortably within its lane on the highways. Most importantly, the organization said, Super Cruise prioritized safety. The system uses a small camera to track drivers’ eyes. If a driver’s attention wanders, red warning lights embedded in the steering wheel light up, and the car slows to a stop after a series of audible alerts and seat vibrations. The system only engages on highways that General Motors, which owns the brand, has mapped out including 130,000 miles of highway across the US and Canada. That ensures the system is never used outside its intended parameters.
Tesla’s Autopilot came in second. While it excelled for ease of use and performance (beating out Cadillac, in fact), it suffered in the safety department. Autopilot’s capabilities make it too easy for drivers to become overconfident in the system, Consumer Reports argued. Unlike Super Cruise, Tesla does not use cameras it has facing the driver to monitor driver attention (Tesla says it may activate these in future software updates). While Tesla limits the speed when used off highways, it won’t lock drivers out of the system when on narrow, winding roads or those with unclear lane markings.
In the past, Tesla CEO Elon Musk has insisted the company’s software would be safer than human drivers. But plenty of owners have ignored Tesla’s directions to keep alert with their hands on the wheel while engaging Autopilot, with at least two involved in fatal accidents. In the last two years, Tesla has rolled out software updates triggering more aggressive alerts for drivers to grip the wheel and, if those fail, applying the brakes to stop the vehicle and then turn on the hazard lights.
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