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Most Canadians don’t really understand what is or isn’t a fully self-driving car, according to a new survey funded by Transport Canada.

An alarming proportion of Canadians are under the false impression that the driver-assistance technologies available today – such as lane centring, automatic emergency braking, and adaptive cruise control – make a car capable of driving itself without control from a human driver, a new survey shows.

“More than half (59 per cent) of respondents [incorrectly] classify driver-assist technologies that are available today as being fully automated, self-driving technologies,” according to J.D. Power Canada, which conducted the survey. To put that in perspective, it’s almost like classifying a stuffed animal as a living, breathing one. In total, 67 per cent of people had “inaccurate knowledge” of fully automated, self-driving vehicles. The authors also noted that some respondents appear to be overestimating their own knowledge.

“Right now, consumers don’t know what they don’t know,” wrote Lisa Boor, senior manager of auto benchmarking and mobility development at market research firm J.D. Power.

The problem with that knowledge gap is that drivers could be whizzing down public roads thinking their car is in control, when, in fact, it’s not. That, as they say, is an accident waiting to happen.

Perhaps the biggest surprise from the survey is that fully one-third of Canadian drivers do understand that we’re still a long way from having fully-automated vehicles. That’s pretty good, considering the mess of conflicting and incorrect information out there.

Untangling the nuances – and there are many – of current and future autonomous vehicle (AV) technologies requires a detailed attention to language and an engineer’s technical know-how. There is a world of difference, for example, between “partial driving automation” and “conditional driving automation.” (The former means a human is in control of the vehicle, even though the car can help the driver brake, accelerate or steer, while the latter means a human may or may not be driving.)

Does the auto industry realize people have other things – besides keeping up with the latest in vehicle technology – going on in their lives? Paying rent, getting groceries, gawking at the high cost of said groceries, raising children and making weekend plans all seem like more pressing concerns than having a clear understanding of all six levels of driving automation as defined by SAE International, a global association representing automotive and aerospace engineers and technical experts.

The levels start at zero, so the highest level is five and it’s called “full driving automation,” but cars you can buy today in Canada are only at level two. Asleep yet?

It doesn’t help that the technology in cars changes and evolves with every new model year, or that different brands refer to the same basic technologies by different names. Some names imply the systems are more advanced than they actually are. Tesla, for instance, sells consumers a “Full Self Driving Capability” package that, so far, is not even close to being fully self-driving. (That Tesla realizes this is made clear on its website, which states: “Autopilot and Full Self-Driving Capability are intended for use with a fully attentive driver, who has their hands on the wheel and is prepared to take over at any moment.“)

The survey was conducted by J.D. Power, Partners for Automated Vehicle Education (PAVE) Canada, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), with funding from Transport Canada. It’s based on a nationally representative survey of 4,000 vehicle owners across the country. The same survey was also conducted in the United States.

In Canada, 17 per cent of respondents incorrectly believe that “fully automated self-driving vehicles” are available to purchase or lease for personal use right now, said J.D. Power’s Lisa Boor. In the United States, it’s 19 per cent. Asked to give an example of a fully automated self-driving vehicle, a high percentage of those respondents wrote “Tesla.” Which only goes to show the power of marketing, even when the company’s fine print acknowledges such claims are overblown.

The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recently published data on the safety performance of (SAE Level 2) advanced driver-assistance systems. The data lack context, but suggest misuse or misunderstanding of current driver-assistance systems has been a factor in crashes causing serious injury or death.

That’s not to say driver assistance technology isn’t helpful – it is – but rather that it can be better, and educating drivers about it is critical.

The J.D. Power survey came to the same conclusion about the importance of educating drivers, and the good news is that drivers are open to learning. “There is an expectation among 71 per cent of consumers that additional training would be required to own and operate a fully automated, self-driving vehicle,” the survey found.

In the future, in other words, you may have to pass a test in order to not drive a car.

Driver education is well and good, but auto makers also need to simplify this terminology. Forget the six SAE levels, forget the marketing jargon, all I really want to know when I’m behind the wheel is who’s in charge: me or the car? Make it obvious. Standardize the names and the ways we interact with the systems across brands. That way we can spend our time doing something more productive than memorizing all 41 less-than-scintillating pages of the SAE J3016_202104 Standard Taxonomy and Definitions for Terms Related to Driving Automation Systems for On-Road Motor Vehicles.

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