Tesla's Autopilot, which at its core combines lane keeping assist with traffic aware cruise control to help guide a car down a highway, was once groundbreaking technology.
But today more than half of new vehicles are available with similar advanced driver assistance systems, or ADAS. And in a recent ranking by Consumer Reports, which tested ADAS from 12 different carmakers, Tesla's ranked seventh.
The best such system, according to Consumer Reports, is Ford's BlueCruise.
In addition to Ford's system, ADAS technology from General Motors, Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Toyota, and Volkswagen all ranked higher than Tesla's.
These include systems offered by luxury brands like GM's Cadillac, Toyota's Lexus and VW's Audi. The system offered by Hyundai, Kia and Genesis, three closely related South Korean car brands, received the lowest score in Consumer Reports' testing.
BlueCruise has two major differences from Tesla Autopilot, and most of the others. First, the Ford system is designed to allow drivers to leave their hands off the steering wheel for long periods of time while driving on highways that have been pre-mapped in detail. Second, BlueCruise uses an infrared camera inside the car to monitor the driver's face and make sure they are paying attention to the road ahead. GM's Super Cruise, which ranked second, is the only other system tested by Consumer Reports that works this way.
Ford's driver monitoring technology is one of the major reasons that BlueCruise ranked so highly in Consumer Reports' testing. Tesla Autopilot and most others, by contrast, can detect only the pull of a driver's hand on the steering wheel to ensure that the driver isn't entirely distracted.
Vehicles with ADAS are not self-driving cars. (No self-driving cars are yet on the market.) Drivers are supposed to pay attention at all times and be ready to take over the wheel in the event something happens that the car's automated systems can't safely handle.
Some systems that used only the weight of a hand on the steering wheel to indicate driver attentiveness still allowed drivers to not touch the steering wheel for a worryingly long time, according to Consumer Reports.
"In our tests, both Mercedes-Benz and Tesla allowed the vehicle to drive down the highway hands-free for about 30 seconds before the first audible alert was given to the driver to put a hand back on the steering wheel," Kelly Funkhouser, head of connected and automated vehicle for Consumer Reports, was quoted as saying in an report on the results.
Consumer Reports auto testers put the various systems through 40 different tests to gauge things like how well the systems steered the vehicles, how they ensured the driver remained alert and how they dealt with inattentive or even an unconscious driver. More advanced features, such as automated lane changes, which are available in some systems, were not evaluated.
Tesla's "Full Self Driving" optional feature, which promises to one day provide assistance in a broad range of situations including urban driving, was not evaluated in these tests. Attempts to email Tesla with questions about Consumer Reports' assessments were unsuccessful. Tesla does not generally respond to media queries.
The ways in which different technologies communicate with drivers were also tested. When using these sorts of technologies, drivers need to be instantly aware of whether the systems are operating, when they might be only partially operational and when they shut off for any reason. The systems also have to communicate to the driver when they are available for use and when they're not.
GM's Super Cruise system, for instance, uses a bright colored light bar in the top of the steering wheel rim to alert the driver to the system's status or to warn when the driver needs to take over. In Ford vehicles, the gauge cluster screen changes color to indicate the system's status.
Some of the systems, like Ford's, GM's and Rivian's, are only fully operational when the vehicle is being driven on specific designated highways, usually divided interstate-type highways. Other systems have no such restrictions and, while they might be intended for highway use, nothing prevents them from being used on undivided roads with intersections. Tesla and Lexus systems were specifically pointed out by Consumer Reports for allowing their use in potentially unsafe situations.
In terms of just steering the vehicles down the center of a lane, systems from Ford, Mercedes and Tesla all did a good job of steering smoothly and keeping the vehicle continuously in the lane center even on curvy roads.
The Hyundai, Kia and Genesis system tended to make the vehicle swerve back and forth between the lane lines, according to Consumer Reports. Kia's system, in particular, was unable to stay in a lane through curves, according to Consumer Reports. Kia and Genesis did not immediately respond to requests from CNN Business for comments on Consumer Reports' assessments.
"We are constantly evaluating the performance of our models utilizing internal data, input from third parties like Consumer Reports, direct reports from owners, and a variety of other sources with the goal of continually improving our vehicles and technologies," Hyundai Motor America said in a statement.
For the most part, vehicle owner's manuals were of little use in learning how to use the systems, Consumer Reports said. The consumer advocacy group found the manuals to be "vague" and, in its report, wrote that they "seem more more like tools used to reduce manufacturer liability rather than to help drivers fully understand, and use, these high-tech systems."
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