Time for standard naming of safety features

  • 22-Sep-2017 05:09 EDT
Renault_Nissan_autonomous_drive_30.jpg

Hands-free driving with Nissan chairman Carlos Ghosn (left). But is it healthy to describe current limited-capability ADAS systems as "autonomous?" (image: Nissan).


Smart cruise control. Intelligent cruise control. Adaptive cruise control. Radar speed control. As The Bard wrote so long ago, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Sadly that tale did not end well for the protagonists.

In today’s world of increasingly sophisticated active safety systems, engineers and consumers alike are being bombarded by more and more brand-specific labels for essentially the same technology. Unfortunately, imprecise branding driven more by marketers than technologists threatens to put us all at risk.

Branding is always a tricky thing, especially when the chosen names hint at the underlying functionality. When that happens, it creates expectations with the consumer. If those expectations aren’t met, the intended outcome can backfire. Active safety systems that fail to meet a customer’s expectations could lead to injury or death.

Perhaps the best-known example of this is Tesla’s AutoPilot. Its branding as well as the descriptions from CEO Elon Musk during presentations have led many to call this advanced driver assist system (ADAS) the first production self-driving car. Ill-informed mass media bought into this storyline and some Tesla owners have posted irresponsible videos online showing the driver climbing into the back seat while the vehicle was in motion. In May 2016, Joshua Brown died when his Model S running on AutoPilot crashed into a tractor trailer. Government investigators ruled the crash was at least partly caused by Brown’s overreliance on AutoPilot.

Human-machine interface and user experience (UX) design is tricky even when there is no real risk involved. That’s why primary control interfaces in vehicles eventually became relatively standardized, beginning with the foot-pedal arrangement. Drivers have a certain expectation of what the controls do; following the standard helps to ensure they are met.

But as transmission shift interfaces migrated from mechanical to electronic switchgear, behavioral inconsistency has become a problem. The 2016 death of actor Anton Yelchin was caused by his Jeep being in neutral rather and park and accidentally running over him.

The increasing number of instrument cluster warning lamps initially led to designers creating distinct icons. Ultimately, these became standardized and today we find essentially the same iconography used for brake alerts, traction control, lights and other indicators.

In 2017, as nearly every incumbent 20th-century automaker tries to reposition itself as a 21st-century tech company, dubious branding is again putting people at risk.

Despite the tragic death of Brown, Nissan chairman Carlos Ghosn delivered a CES keynote where he talked up the benefits of the company’s ProPilot ADAS system and repeatedly called it autonomous. ProPilot debuted in the Japanese market Serena minivan in 2016 and will be featured on the 2018 Leaf in late 2017. During a media briefing in July 2017, Nissan officials emphasized that ProPilot is not a self-driving system, but an SAE Level 2 ‘assist’ technology. Weeks later during the global debut of the new Leaf, Japanese marketing executives once again called it autonomous!

As more automakers roll out similar technologies, such inconsistency is going to lead to consumer confusion and expectations that won’t or can’t be met. One of the main drivers for increased deployment of active safety systems and vehicle automation is to reduce the number of people killed and injured every year. Despite the proliferation of ADAS, we have actually seen fatalities and crashes increase.

Having executives calling a system ‘autonomous’ when it still requires you to keep hands on the steering wheel will lead to both a bad user experience and more crashes. Educational efforts like the National Safety Council’s “My Car Does What?” and Bosch’s “Automated Mobility Academy” will help. However, it’s time to reign in the marketers, lose the hype and start using standard descriptive language to let people really know what their vehicles can and cannot do.

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