The names manufacturers use for automated vehicle systems can send the wrong messages to drivers about how attentive they should be, according to a new study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS).

A related IIHS study has also found that drivers don’t always understand important information communicated by system displays.

“Current levels of automation could potentially improve safety,” said IIHS President David Harkey. “However, unless drivers have a certain amount of knowledge and comprehension, these new features also have the potential to create new risks.”

The automation available in vehicles available for purchase today is considered Level 1 or 2, which applies to systems that can perform one or more parts of the driving task under supervision of the driver. An example of a Level 1 system is lane centering, in which lateral control of the vehicle is automated, or adaptive cruise control, in which longitudinal control — i.e. speed and following distance — is automated. Systems that can perform both of those functions simultaneously are Level 2 systems.

For a vehicle to carry out the entire driving task with no input from humans, an automation level of 5 would be required.

Levels of driving automation (developed by SAE International)

Level 0                The human driver does everything

Level 1                An automated system can assist the human driver in conducting one                                  part of the driving task. Available on vehicles that can be purchased                                  today

Level 2                An automated system can assist the driver with multiple parts of the                                  driving task. The driver must continue to monitor the driving                                            environment and be actively engaged. Available on vehicles that can be                              purchased today

Level 3                An automated system conducts all of the driving task without driver                                  engagement and monitors the driving environment, but the human                                    driver must stand by to intervene in response to a system failure or                                  request from the system to take over

Level 4                An automated system can conduct the entire driving task without driver                            input but only in certain conditions (e.g., limited to 25 mph) or places                                (e.g., a city center).

Level 5                An automated system can perform the entire driving task without driver                            input under all conditions

For the survey, more than 2,000 drivers were asked about five Level 2 system names currently on the market. The names were Autopilot (used by Tesla), Traffic Jam Assist (Audi and Acura), Super Cruise (Cadillac), Driving Assistant Plus (BMW) and ProPilot Assist (Nissan). Participants were told the names of the systems but not the vehicle brands associated with them and weren’t given any other information about the systems.

All of the systems require drivers to remain attentive, and all but Super Cruise warn the driver if hands aren’t detected on the wheel. Super Cruise uses a camera to monitor the driver’s gaze and issues a warning if the driver isn’t looking forward.

When asked whether it would be safe for a driver to take their hands off the wheel while using the technology, 48 percent of people asked about Autopilot said they thought it would be, compared with 33 percent or fewer for the other systems. Autopilot also had substantially greater proportions of people who thought it would be safe to look at scenery, read a book, talk on a phone or text. Six percent thought it would be OK to take a nap while using Autopilot, compared with three percent for the other systems.

“Tesla’s user manual says clearly that the Autopilot’s steering function is a ‘hands-on feature’ but that message clearly hasn’t reached everybody,” said Harkey. “Manufacturers should consider what message the names of their systems send to people.”