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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883


Dubious road to autonomy

The availability of self-driving cars is imminent, but the route leading to them is still somewhat dubious.  Much of the confusion stems from the current approach by automakers.

Given corporate competition and secrecy, each manufacturer is on a different page as to the how, what, when and where of autonomous features.  The driver aids being offered now are a prelude to the systems needed for self-driving, but carmakers are introducing features that differ not only in purpose, but range widely in regard to operational mode and effect.

In other words, feature and manufacturing standards are not universal, making for a diverse array of current driver aids aimed at safety that can be unsafe if misused.

For example, Automotive News recently reported a consequence of the uncontrolled proliferation of autonomous driver assists.  As a Georgia woman approached an intersection during a test drive, a salesman told her not to apply the brakes even though there were two vehicles sitting at the red light ahead.

Accounts from the salesman, Desmond Domingo, and the driver, Donna Lee were similar.  According to them, the Distronic semi-autonomous in the Mercedes-Benz, which Domingo believed would bring the car to a complete stop, did not kick in as he expected.  The vehicle rear-ended the car in front of it at around 40 mph, causing a chain-reaction of crashes that left vehicle carnage and a concussion for an involved driver.

Such situations — when salespeople are trying to demonstrate semiautonomous technology to customers who have never used it — are becoming concerns for industry watchers who fear salespeople will oversell, misrepresent, or misuse the features, leading to crashes.

Some autonomous assists bring the vehicle to a complete stop, while some slow it to 5 mph, as an example of system differentiation.  The wide variety of options makes it hard to keep track of what each vehicle does.  Mike Jackson, CEO of Autonation, indicated that this will be a problem until fully autonomous vehicles — those that operate without driver input — are widely available.  Per his words, “Until then, it is going to be a mess.”

One self-driving technology developer believes that some salespeople are implying that cars with driver assists can “drive themselves,” which scares him because he knows they cannot.

I think the lesson being learned is that educating salespeople and consumers on the capabilities of driver assist features — highlighting benefits and operation — is of utmost importance.  Like all vehicle features, familiarity can prevent misuse of those systems while on the road.

The National Automobile Dealers Association announced a campaign called, “My car does what?” geared toward consumer education, while vehicle manufacturers are diligently applying sales force education.

But there is still an education gap caused by consumers who are indifferent to learning, along with personnel turnover at vehicle dealerships.  Some experts believe that the industry will have to shift to a more salary-based rather than commission-based compensation plan at dealerships to employ people better qualified to talk about the coming technological systems.

As the mother of the driver injured in the Domingo incident summarized, “We are aware of the wonderful potential safety benefits that increasingly automated features can bring to our roadways and look forward to a more secure future of automotive travel.  However, as our experience shows, this current situation of various manufacturers bringing a variety of different features to market can cause a lot of confusion.”


Readers may contact Bill Love via e-mail at