IIHS Announces New ‘Safeguard’ Program To Evaluate Semi-Autonomous Driving Tech

Even the most advanced cars need to make changes to score the top rating

IIHS semi-autonomous driving system ratings — news
Tesla’s Autopilot is among the most advanced semi-autonomous systems on the market, but no current car will ace the IIHS’ new testing plan. (Image: Insurance Institute for Highway Safety)

Future cars will have to face a battery of new IIHS tests on their semi-autonomous driving systems.

Currently, there is no fully self-driving vehicle on the market. That’s a point safety firms and regulators alike have repeated, especially as popular systems like Tesla’s Autopilot, GM’s Super Cruise, Volvo’s Pilot Assist Nissan’s ProPilot Assist become far more common. On top of its existing safety tests, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety announced a new rating system meant to judge how well semi-autonomous driving tech works and — in light of recent high-profile accidents — prevent misuse.

“Partial automation systems may make long drives seem like less of a burden, but there is no evidence that they make driving safer,” says IIHS President David Harkey. “In fact, the opposite may be the case if systems lack adequate safeguards”.

Specifically, those safeguards should actively monitor the driver, and make sure they are still concentrating on the task at hand. Some drivers take these systems as being capable of more than they currently are, IIHS posits, especially with names like “Autopilot”. More than misuse, however, the agency says these new ratings are also about counteracting our mind’s tendency to wander as these systems aid in acceleration, braking and steering.

As much as the IIHS’ program focuses on partial automation systems, those behind its development also emphasize the need for humans to take on their share of responsibility in using the systems safely.

How the partial automation rating works

In judging semi-autonomous driving systems, the IIHS will break down several tests into similar categories as their crashworthiness ratings. Vehicles will rank on a scale of ‘Good’, ‘Acceptable’, ‘Marginal’ or ‘Poor’.

To score a Good rating, new models need to monitor whether the driver has their hands on the wheel and their eyes on the road. In addition to that, it will need to give an escalating series of alerts and “emergency procedures” (i.e. disengaging the system or automatically braking) if a driver doesn’t meet requirements to keep the system operating. Automated lane changes must be initiated or confirmed by the driver, and adaptive cruise control must not restart after a long stop or if the driver isn’t looking at the road, like if they’re on their phones.

Finally, these systems must not engage if the driver’s seat belt is unfastened or any emergency braking or lane departure prevention is disabled. As a failsafe, the IIHS rating notes the system should even slow automatically, notify the manufacturer and lock the driver out from using it again for the remainder of the drive if something goes wrong.

The IIHS says it plans to issue its first ratings under this new program later this year, but the exact timing may shift as supply chain issues make it more difficult to get vehicles to test.