Standards are a good thing – especially when it comes to an activity as potentially hazardous as driving a car. It's comforting, for example, to know that even in countries where they drive on the opposite side of the road than we do here the gas pedal is always located at the far right, the (increasingly uncommon) clutch on the left, and the brake right in the middle. Universally adopted practices like these streamline the most important aspects of the driving experience and give everyone a solid foundation for understanding whatever car or truck they happen to be driving.
In our brave new world of advanced safety features and semi-autonomous vehicles, however, things are a little more wild west. Rather than agree on a set of shared indicators that would guide drivers through the various stages of assistance these systems are supposed to provide, OEMs have instead elected to go it alone. The end result is a mess of flashing lights, beeping sounds, and confusing icons that change from one car to the next, backed by a shifting dashboard tableau that obscures a crucial technology under a shroud of confusion.
The Many-Headed Hydra
We can all agree that, when it comes to self-driving cars – even those that only offer a limited digital hand on the tiller – it's incredibly important to know when their autonomous systems are active, and when they have switched themselves off. In fact, one could argue that this is the single most crucial point of communication between flesh-and-blood driver and computerized pilot, and as a result should not be left up to the vagaries of designers and engineers.
And yet, that's exactly what has happened. Volvo
chooses to place the icon for its Pilot Assist II self-driving feature at the bottom left of the gauge cluster inside the analog speedometer readout. Nissan's ProPilot Assist combines cruise control and steering assistance indicators (like Volvo, a steering wheel icon) in the middle of the cluster. Mercedes-Benz shoves an icon even further down and to the left than Volvo, while BMW carves out a similar chunk of digital real estate to Nissan for its Traffic Jam Assistant. The most obvious of the group? Cadillac's Super Cruise, which combines gauge icons and alerts with an enormous illuminated bar at the very top of the steering wheel.
This is what Tesla's Artificial Intelligence 'sees' when it's on the road
Mercedes-Benz pioneers pedestrian-autonomous car communication patterns
What's Actually Happening?
Not only are the icons in different places - and sporting their own proprietary look depending on which brand of vehicle you are driving, but they also communicate in entirely non-standardized ways.
For instance, Volvo's Pilot Assist II – like most of the features found here – combines the sensors used to maintain a safe distance from the vehicle ahead of you (adaptive cruise) with those that keep an eye on the lines on the road (self-steering lane keeping assistance). In a perfect world, activating the Volvo system puts a green icon in the speedo. Unfortunately, here's where things get confusing.
Pilot Assist II has both ‘Active' and ‘Stand-by' modes after it has been ‘Activated.' Stay with me here. ‘Activated' means you've asked the car to turn on the system. ‘Active' – indicated by a green steering wheel – refers to the system when working perfectly, steering, accelerating, and braking the car.
‘Stand-by' is everything else. What does that mean? Well, suppose the lane detection sensors get covered in snow, or can't see the shoulder or centre lines. That puts Pilot Assist II in ‘Stand-by' and requires that the driver take over the steering, but the only way you'd know that is if you were intently staring at the icon in the gauge cluster, because even though the self-steer feature has shut down, the adaptive cruise control remains completely active, maintaining your current speed. From a notification standpoint, you're now in a situation where the icon is grey, but half of the car's self-driving feature is charging forward, full-steam ahead.
There's more. If you're in slow-moving traffic with Pilot Assist ‘Active,' and the vehicle stops for more than a few seconds, it will also grey the icon and go into ‘Stand-by.' This time, however, it's the adaptive cruise that has shut itself down, requiring you to tap the gas or the cruise-plus button on the steering wheel to get going again.
Two very different states of operation, yet identical communication to the driver via the dash icon system, which is clearly inadequate at describing the complexities of Pilot Assist II. What's worse is that as the vehicle moves down a winter road that goes from clear to covered asphalt, the feature can turn itself on and off and then on again, all without adequately alerting the driver to what's happening. This is because it remains in ‘Activated' mode until the driver turns it off, instead of requiring that it be manually turned on again – sort of a ‘ghost autopilot' setting that is easy to forget about.
Better, But Not Best
At the opposite side of the communications spectrum – at least, at first glance – is Cadillac's Super Cruise. As mentioned earlier, General Motors has decided against relying on the gauge cluster to let people know when Super Cruise is doing its thing, instead implanting a large LED strip into the top of the steering wheel that has several different operating modes.
A solid green indicates that everything is proceeding according to plan and that the car is driving itself without any need for human intervention. Should you take your eyes off of the road, the green light will flash. If you don't pay attention in time, the light continues to flash, only this time in red, and eventually you'll hear beeping and the driver's seat will vibrate. Finally, the system turns itself off, and the vehicle will start to slow before coming to a complete stop.
Sounds great, right? Super Cruise is clear, and in your face, when it comes to alerting you as to what's going on with the system. On top of all that, there's even an indicator for when you manually take over steering while in active mode: the light turns blue to let you know Super Cruise is still there in the background. There's very little ambiguity about what state it's operating in.
Still, even as good as Cadillac's implementation of limited self-driving is at signalling its status, there are still communication issues associated with activating Super Cruise that are frustratingly opaque to the driver. Unlike any other system on the market, Super Cruise relies on highly accurate maps of limited-access highways, combined with its various speed and distance sensors, in order to function properly. This means it can only operate on specific roads that are programmed into its memory.
It's a large selection of routes, to be sure - but there's no way to know whether you're currently on one of them until you either memorize the entire road network or hit the Super Cruise activation button. If you're on the right highway, a white icon appears on the gauge display and you can let the car take over, but if you're not, then you get the puzzling message that Super Cruise is not available.
The worst part of this is that as the driver, you aren't told why you can't access Super Cruise. Is it because a sensor is dirty? You don't know. Is it because there's construction on your route, which Super Cruise prefers not to deal with and can cause it to disable itself? It's not clear. Are you simply not on a road found in the mapping database? Again, it's a mystery.
Figure It Out, Quick
Continuing to implement self-driving systems that go their own way when it comes to keeping human beings in the loop out on the road is only going to make driving more dangerous, rather than relieve us of the burden of dealing with heavy traffic or long-distance travel. Even the best systems currently on the market have their blind spots when it comes to getting the message across – and the worst offenders are borderline hazardous.
Communication is important in every relationship, and when it comes down to safe driving using semi-autonomous technology, the communication you have with your car might be the most important of all. There's no reason why the automotive industry can't come together and find a set of icons, sounds, and procedures that are universal in telling drivers what's going on out on the road with their self-driving technology.