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The Time Is Right For ADAS Testing

June 27, 2017 Heath Davis-Gardner, Technology and Digital Culture Editor

Have you seen this commercial? It starts with a woman in standing in the middle of the street, gazing up at a sky-written marriage proposal. We see that she’s in an urban area. A car comes quickly into the frame and even more quickly stops, as the words “automatic emergency braking” appear on-screen. Then the camera pulls back to show that we’re in a car going quite fast on a desert highway, with a couple watching this demonstration of emergency braking on their smartphone. “Wow, good to know we have automatic brakes,” says the woman. The man, entranced by the video, swerves out of his lane, which is corrected. “We have lane departure assistance, too,” he says with a smile.

There are a lot of problems with this ad, and those of us that are excited about the AV age should be paying attention to it and ads like it. Because the fact is the public does not currently trust these automatic driver assistance systems (ADAS). J.D. Power recently released the results of a new survey that shows “basic semiautonomous features such as adaptive cruise control, autonomous braking and lane-departure assist notched the largest increase in complaints this year.” The analysis argues “these complaints signal an uphill battle … if car buyers aren’t convinced that the basic building blocks of self-driving cars work seamlessly now, they won’t buy a self-driving car in the future.”

That should concern anyone with a stake in the ultimate success of autonomous vehicles. And the public may be correct to not trust them at present — these AAA statistics show that the efficacy of automatic braking systems is iffy at best. Automatic emergency braking, for example, only has a shot at working if the driver is going fairly slowly. There’s little consensus over what sensors should be used for which systems — that conversation is still ongoing — and there are other unknowns when it comes to ADAS that suggest many of these systems are not ready for prime-time.

So why are car companies pushing these systems so quickly? The ad described above shows they’re aware of the limitations of their systems. The car that narrowly misses a pedestrian is going slowly, but we immediately cut to a car that’s going quite fast — a sneaky way to make the AEB system appear useful on the highway, when according to AAA, it’d be somewhere between 9 and 40% effective when traveling at 45 miles per hour.

These companies are caught in an awkward position. They are aware of the need to maintain public trust once it’s time for level 3 and 4 autonomous vehicles. But they also need to continue to turn a profit in the meantime. So we can understand why they’re anxious to get these systems to market, but the systems need more than the small-sample public testing AAA carried out. There is still debate, for example, on whether lidar or radar is more effective for automatic emergency braking. Doesn’t it seem like this should be discerned before cars touting the feature are deployed? Shouldn’t consumers get systems that work as advertised? To ADAS our way to AVs, shouldn’t consumer trust be at least as valuable as a car sale?

We understand the current plight of the OEMs — the genie is out of the bottle, ADAS systems are on the road, and they are features that have been proven to be desirable, at least in theory, to consumers. Nobody wants to get left behind when it comes to new and cool features. This is where the Wisconsin Proving Grounds comes in. By testing ADAS systems at the Proving Grounds, OEMs can simultaneously ensure the safety of their systems and — since they’d be doing so out in the open — gain public trust that is so crucial to their business model, both currently and in the near future.

The time is right. It’s about to get easier to “ADAS our way to AVs” in terms of testing AV systems without needing an entire autonomous prototype. According to recent reporting, the House and the Senate are both advancing legislation to make AV testing easier on manufacturers, following hearings and meetings with over 100 industry stakeholders. There are over a dozen bills advancing through committees right now, but as far as the proving grounds go, we’re thinking this will help speed things along: lawmakers are looking to “raise the federal cap on the number of exemptions that can be granted to driverless carmakers who want to design and test cars without traditional automobile features.” Currently, while all cars are required to have steering wheels and pedals, federal waivers can only be granted a certain number of times per year for testing purposes, which constrains the ability of manufacturers to conduct serious testing. With that regulation eased, we think we’ll see a lot of ADAS action at the proving grounds.

So, our message to auto manufacturers: this is your moment. Public opinion may be turning against some of the early iterations of autonomous features in vehicles, but there’s a clear path toward righting the ship. It’s coming at just the right time, with a confluence of regulations and test site availability opening the doors to a new intensity in regimes for testing ADAS systems. And with a growing public attention to all things AV — which is sure to result from the big legislative push that’s ongoing — it seems pretty clear the public will take notice. When that starts to happen and testing shows, for example, improvements to automatic emergency braking systems, those commercials are going to connect as well as they were meant to in the first place.

Heath Davis-Gardner is a professional writer and editor who currently serves as Strategic Communications Specialist at Mandli Communications.