Tesla electric cars gain top ratings in the US, Europe and Australia from vehicle and highway safety firms but the most recent testing in Europe suggest that in terms of driver engagement, Tesla has work to do on its autopilot offering.
The second series of assisted driving grading from Euro NCAP seeks to ensure that assisted driving technologies now becoming more common in vehicles are safe for drivers.
The highway assist tests focus on assistance competence – that is, how well a vehicle system assists the driver balanced with how it engages the driver, ensuring alertness is maintained.
“Assisted driving technologies offer enormous benefits by reducing fatigue and encouraging safe driving,” said Dr. Michiel van Ratingen, Euro NCAP secretary general in a statement.
“However, manufacturers must ensure that assisted driving technology does not increase the amount of harm incurred by drivers or other road users compared to conventional driving.”
Tesla is a leader in driver assist and development of autonomous driving technology. Its “Autopilot” system which comes standard with its electric vehicles is a basic driver assist system that helps to stay in lanes, brake and maintain a safe speed.
Tesla also offers a “Full Self Driving” (FSD) semi-autonomous software and sensor package that helps the driver navigate highway on-ramps and off-ramps, automatically changes lanes, automatically parks and can also let the driver to summon the car from the other side of the car park.
It can also see and stop at traffic lights and stop signs and in the future Tesla says it will be able to safely navigate roundabouts.
Tesla notes on its website that, “The currently enabled [FSD] features require active driver supervision and do not make the vehicle autonomous.”
Tesla CEO and co-founder Elon Musk has hopes for a robo-taxi fleet driven by FSD technology, although several timelines mooted for this (such as by the end of 2019) have been passed.
Musk admitted recently at the car maker’s Battery Day that Tesla’s autonomous testing had reached a “local maximum” and the company was undergoing a “fundamental rewrite” and relabelling of its software and algorithms.
Both levels of Tesla’s driving assist packages require the driver to remain attentive at all times.
While the driver can remove their hands from the steering wheel, the vehicle will alert the driver if it does not feel the steering wheel being manually moved for more than a short amount of time.
“The best systems offer a balance between the amount of assistance they provide and the level of driver engagement – and should be supported by an effective safety backup,” says van Ratingen.
In Euro NCAP’s driving assist technology tests it looked at how well Tesla’s Autopilot keeps the driver engaged.
The firm noted Tesla’s pioneering role in autonomous driving technology and the fact that it got top scores with vehicle assistance and safety backup.
“However, its “Autopilot” system does little to keep the driver engaged,” the firm wrote in a press release regarding the test results.
“Its distinct steering strategy gives the impression that either the car is driving itself or the driver has full control, and the system is more authoritarian than cooperative.
“Grading- wise, the car is badly let down by its performance in Driver Engagement and ends up ranked ‘Moderate’.”
The stern remarks echo a recent court ruling in Germany that resulted in banning Tesla Germany from advertising a “full potential for autonomous driving” or “autopilot inclusive” in its marketing materials.
The lawsuit was filed by not-for-profit group Center for Protection Against Unfair Competition which accused Tesla promising more to its customers than it was capable of delivering.
“A legal framework for autonomous inner-city driving doesn’t even exist yet in Germany,” Andreas Ottofuelling, a lawyer for the group, said in a press statement. “And other functions aren’t working yet as advertised.”
While Tesla may still have a fair way to go before it achievs its goal of fully autonomous self-driving technology (which at the top Level 5 would allow drivers to take their attention away from the road entirely), Euro NCAP notes that it does have the ability to rapidly deploy software Improvements.
“On the upside, Tesla offers over-the-air updates and can rapidly introduce performance improvements, as they have shown to be doing in recent years,” the firm wrote.
“The results of this round of tests demonstrate that driving assistance is fast becoming better and more readily available, but until driver monitoring is significantly improved, the driver needs to remain responsible at all times,” says van Ratingen.
Bridie Schmidt is lead reporter for The Driven, sister site of Renew Economy. She specialises in writing about new technology and has been writing about electric vehicles for two years. She has a keen interest in the role that zero emissions transport has to play in sustainability and is co-organiser of the Northern Rivers Electric Vehicle Forum.