Just how road ready are semi-autonomous driving systems?

Just how road ready are semi-autonomous driving systems?

While automakers and safety experts alike have been pushing this technology for years, viewing it as a potential panacea to injuries and fatalities attributable to distracted driving or other forms of driver negligence, the movement recently experienced something of a setback this past spring.

Specifically, a motorist was killed in May while behind the wheel of his Tesla Motors Inc. Model S, which was equipped with a semi-automated self-driving system that was, in fact, engaged at the time of the tragic accident.

While the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is still investigating the precise cause of the accident, Tesla has since updated the self-driving system with improvements that it indicated would likely have prevented the fatal crash.

As it turns out, any lingering doubt as to whether automakers are truly on the precipice of unrolling completely safe semi-autonomous driving systems was likely only heightened this past week following the release of a letter from the NHTSA to General Motors concerning its forthcoming “Super Cruise” system.

For those unfamiliar with the Super Cruise system, it would essentially enable motorists to let vehicles assume control of driving on highways. However, if the system’s facial recognition system determines that a person is falling asleep or not paying attention, or that there are too many turns in the road, a series of warnings will be issued to the driver urging them to take over. In the event, this doesn’t happen, Super Cruise is designed to automatically bring the vehicle to a stop and activate the hazard lights.

In the letter from the NHTSA to GM, it expressed concern over the possibility of the driver being unresponsive, incapacitated or otherwise unable to assume control of the vehicle, and Super Cruise determining that “the safest thing to do is bring the vehicle slowly to a stop… in or near the roadway.”

While it’s likely that this issue will be remedied before the scheduled unveiling of Super Cruise in 2017, the situation nevertheless serves to raise questions about just how road ready semi-autonomous driving systems really are.

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