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The Levels of Vehicle Autonomy and Safety

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Do advanced driver-assistance systems handle driving tasks as humans would?

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has released studies, including one released at the beginning of August, detailing how some driver-assist features in cars may not protect passengers without attention from drivers.

 And while those systems help to reduce the likelihood of crashes, body shops will still see repairs, which is why they need to be aware of what the technology can do.

FenderBender sat down with David Aylor, director for active safety testing for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Aylor shared insight into what a collision repairer could expect from different levels of autonomous vehicles and safety features on the road today.


Can you tell us about your role at IIHS and how you interact with autonomous vehicle technology?

My job here is to research and evaluate different active safety technologies that are currently on cars or are going to be on vehicles in the future. We do testing on autonomous emergency brake systems to evaluate their effectiveness. We look at how well headlights illuminate the road at night.

We started doing testing on rear-braking systems, as well, to limit the damage in parking lots, driveways. And, more recently, we’re starting to look at more advanced features that help drivers not only maintain a distance behind the vehicle in front of them (those systems we call adaptive cruise control), but also lane-centering systems that try to help drivers maintain their lane position.


Can you give us a brief review of the various levels of autonomous cars and what features come with each of those levels?

Most people refer to five levels of autonomy—all the way from a Level 0, meaning the driver is doing everything, all the way up to Level 5, in which would be the driver is doing nothing, the car is driving and there are no restrictions on where it is driving. There are various levels in between.

Right now, the most advanced systems we can see are considered Level 2 systems. Those are systems that help a driver maintain a safe distance behind the vehicle in front of them, and also maintain lane position, but the driver needs to remain engaged, whether that means their hands are on the steering wheel or at least viewing what is happening in front of them. We do have what we call driver-assist systems right now and they are not fully autonomous because the driver needs to remain engaged in the driving task.


How close are we to perfecting Level 2 vehicles and which OEMs are the furthest along in that?

Right now, we do have systems on the road that are considered Level 2. Many manufacturers have those and I think the key thing to keep in mind is that because they are Level 2, the driver needs to remain engaged.

Tesla, Mercedes, BMW 5 series, Volvo S-90 are some vehicles that we have looked at recently that have Level 2 and they do some things well, but they are not full autonomous systems. And drivers really need to remain engaged when they are driving them.


How many autonomous vehicles are on the road? Could a collision repair shop expect to see one in their facility?

I don’t know exactly how many there are but they are becoming more prevalent. And in fact, even the Level 2 systems have technology. Often there is a camera behind the system, there is a radar mounted behind the front cover and there may even be radar mounted in the rear-quarter panel area to ascertain if there are vehicles behind them.

This technology has been around for several years and it is just now that manufacturers are sort of using all those sensors to do more with the vehicle. It’s the same sensors we had for front-crash prevention or blind spot. So, even if a system is not fully Level 2, it is likely a body shop is going to see these systems on other vehicles. They just won’t have the full capability of a Level 2 system.


Recently, IIHS had an article that said Level 2 cars can’t handle every driving task like a human could; why is that?

I think there are limitations to the system. A good example is as you crest a hill, you don’t necessarily see the lane lines over the other side. We, as drivers, know the lane is going to maintain the same curve or go straight, but the camera on the vehicle may not know that and struggle with that situation.

We saw some cars in which the system just deactivated because it didn’t see the lane lines. We saw other cars that sort of started to try to find the lane lines. You know, if you’re an active driver you can handle that, but if you are not engaged in the driving task, that can be very surprising.

We also saw situations where stopped vehicles could create a problem for the cars. Your adaptive cruise system is helping you maintain an appropriate distance and speed, you expect it to do the same thing for a stopped lead vehicle and if it doesn’t, that is going to be very surprising for a driver. Again, we’re not there yet.

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