The European New Car Assessment Programme (Euro NCAP) has finished a study on driver assistance systems and issued some moderately surprising results. While nowhere near comprehensive enough to be the ultimate authority on self-driving cars, it did give us a taste of Europe’s new grading system and how it will be implemented as more vehicles are tested. For now, NCAP is focused on a handful of models ranging from the pedestrian Renault Clio to the much more expensive Mercedes-Benz GLE.
While one might expect the moral of the study to be roughly ‘you get what you pay for,’ the reality seemed much more complicated after the Tesla Model 3 ended up in sixth place out of a possible ten. Anybody who has ever used Tesla’s Autopilot will tell you it’s probably the most impressive advanced driving suite currently on sale. This author certainly would before the smile dissolved and he was forced to you that it (and other) driving assistance packages are horrible, misleading inventions that need to be gotten rid of as soon as possible.
Alright, that’s moderately hyperbolic but faintly reminiscent of what Euro NCAP decided in its own research. There are just too many gaps in the technology today for it to be reliably counted on by anyone and some of the best systems have the unfortunate trait of being extra good at lulling drivers into a false sense of security. There are numerous studies examining this phenomenon and countless anecdotes on this very website where one of us will ultimately include a line where we turn the system off as the frustrations mounted.
The fact of the matter is that driver assistance packages rarely function the same between brands and, based on multiple assessments from AAA, don’t always pass muster. That’s not really a big deal when someone is relying on them as their last line of defense but many people mistakenly presume their onboard computers are bulletproof — especially in relation to the marketing strategies of certain automakers. I cannot tell you the number of people that still think Tesla’s Autopilot offers legitimate vehicular autonomy on par with the hovercrafts found in films like Blade Runner.
However, I do know why they feel that way. Tesla and its acolytes make Autopilot sound much more advanced than it actually is and it’s more than enough to fool even those who are relatively well informed about cars.
Euro NCAP took that into account, giving the Model 3 top marks for Vehicle Assistance (how good the suite works overall) and Safety Backup (how adept the car is at mitigating at system failures). But it failed miserably in terms of Driver Engagement, which calculates how much the vehicle demands the driver remain in the game to continue using driver assistance packages and takes into account how accurately the manufacturer markets its true capabilities.
Thatcham Research, which helped NCAP in its assessment, noted that the best systems strike a healthy balance between the amount of assistance offered to the driver and how much they do to ensure nobody falls asleep behind the wheel. But that results in interior camera systems that constantly track the driver’s face and incessant dinging reminding you to stop looking out the side window and place your hands back on the damn wheel. Undoubtedly safer, but hardly what one would want from a feature that’s biggest selling point is supposed to be peace of mind.
Those metrics left the Model 3 receiving a Vehicle Assistance score of 87 while its Safety Backup features garnered a staggering 95 points. But Autopilot’s Driver Engagement score dropped its final rank significantly with just 36 points — the lowest of any system tested. By contrast, luxury German brands fared quite a bit better by having more consistent scores across the board, even if Autopilot technically beat them in every category but Driver Engagement.
It also allowed the Ford Kuga (aka the Escape) to best the Model 3. While we’ve been fairly impressed with the strides Blue Oval has made in regard to its advanced driving aids of late, it’s systems are not on par with what’s currently offered by Tesla. Frankly, neither are the systems offered by the Germans — some of which can be quite herky-jerky. But they’ll keep better tabs on the driver, which was enough for Euro NCAP.
While yours truly is of the mind that none of these features should have ever left the factory before they had been tested into oblivion and resulted in cars operating at SAE Level 3 or better, the industry is a competitive place and there are a lot of people that want self-driving vehicles now. Automakers know they can market what they have currently as basically self-driving and then clarify that isn’t the case in the owner’s manual to avoid any legal troubles. That makes NCAP’s new Assisted Driving Grading a relatively handy tool in disseminating fact from fiction.
But it doesn’t address the core problems, which is why I tend to test these systems out in the quest for knowledge before ultimately deciding to deactivate them. They’ve simply acted too unpredictably in the past and I have no desire to use the road if I am not ready to give it my full attention. Does that mean everyone else should do the same? Not necessarily. While advanced driving aids still seem quite clumsy and prone to encourage distractions, I cannot say they won’t be helpful in saving perpetually inattentive drivers from disaster. We’ll just need to wait until they’ve improved some more before anyone around here is willing to commit to praising them outright.
If you’d like to examine Euro NCAP’s new Assisted Driving Grading, scores for 2020 model year vehicles are available here. Meanwhile, the long-form version of how it tabulates those scores are available here.
[Images: Euro NCAP]