Caution, Drivers: Don't Buy the "Self-Driving" Hype

Study: Auto tech marketing may lead to overconfidence, misunderstanding, danger. 

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DENVER (Sept. 10, 2020)  - Drivers who are falsely promised that their car is "automated" or can "drive itself" are more inclined to over-rely on technology and take unnecessary risks behind the wheel – putting everybody on the road in danger. That's the latest from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, which found that automotive marketing which stresses convenience and capabilities while minimizing limitations leads directly to increased distraction and decreased response times among drivers. 

"The way we talk about automotive technology is important, with subtle differences in tone and emphasis significantly influencing the way that people interact with their cars," said Skyler McKinley, director of public affairs for AAA Colorado. "There's no such thing as an 'automated' driving experience. Current technology can assist a driver, but driving still demands your complete attention. That will be the case for a long time to come."

Research Findings
In this AAA Foundation study, 90 research participants received a brief overview of an active driving assistance system with a realistic but fictitious name. Before driving the same vehicle, half of the participants were told their system was called "AutonoDrive," and were given an upbeat training that emphasized the system's capabilities and driver convenience. The other half of the participants were told their system was named "DriveAssist," and their training placed greater emphasis on the systems' limitations and driver responsibility. 

All told, participants trained on AutonoDrive came away with greater confidence – and in some cases, overconfidence – in the system. After completing the training and driving the test vehicle, 42 percent of the participants using AutonoDrive said its name made the system more capable than it is, while only 11 percent of DriveAssist users felt the same. 

Sample Perception Differences

The system would make me feel more comfortable while driving. 

  • AutonoDrive: 65%
  • DriveAssist: 27%

The system would make me feel more comfortable using a handheld cell phone. 

  • AutonoDrive: 45%
  • DriveAssist: 13%

The system can take action to avoid a collision when a vehicle directly to the side begins steering into it to change lanes.

  • AutonoDrive: 42%
  • DriveAssist: 4%

The system can automatically reduce speed on a tight curve without the driver doing anything.

  • AutonoDrive: 56%
  • DriveAssist: 27%

When driving with the system engaged, participants who received the training that emphasized the system’s capabilities displayed greater confidence in the system — as assessed by the proportion of time that they had their hands away from the steering wheel and feet away from the pedals — compared to those who received the training that emphasized limitations. These participants were also more likely to take a very long time (5+ seconds) to respond when the system disengaged unexpectedly and returned speed and steering control to the driver.

Words Matter
Potential consumer misunderstandings of new vehicle technology need to be addressed to build trust in these features and keep our roads safe. In a previous survey, 40 percent of Americans told AAA they expect active driving assistance systems with names such as Autopilot and ProPILOT to drive the car by themselves. AAA recommends that automakers provide consumers information that is not only technically accurate but also matches the on-road experience. For consumers, there must be an emphasis on driver engagement and understanding the limitations of these technologies.  Car dealers have a responsibility to educate car buyers on these technologies without overselling a vehicle's bells and whistles.

"Carmakers are in the business of selling cars. Understandably, they're going to emphasize convenience and capability in their marketing campaigns. But at the end of the day, it's dangerous to mislead motorists," McKinley said. "Words matter. We can do better by being more realistic in setting expectations such that the sale of a new vehicle doesn't come at the expense of safety."

Drivers have a role to play, too. They are responsible for taking the time to understand the technology in their vehicle. New features, functions, and limitations should be understood before leaving the lot. Additional AAA Foundation research examined active driving assistance in on-road driving with research participants and found that when motorists receive detailed, comprehensive training on the system, they initially pay more attention to the overall driving task.

To reduce misuse or over-reliance on the systems, AAA recommends that new vehicle owners follow this PLAN:

  • Purpose: Learn the purpose of active driving technology by reading the vehicle owner's manual and visiting the manufacturer's website.
  • Limitations: Understand what technology cannot do. Do not make any assumptions about automation. While these technologies set the stage for the self-driving car of the future, no current consumer vehicle is able to drive itself.
  • Allow time for testing: Test your technology out on the road, so you'll know exactly how it will work if you use on it regularly.  
  • Never rely on it: It's unsafe to rely on this technology. Instead, act as if the vehicle does not have it, and be prepared to retake control at a moment's notice. 

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About AAA – The Auto Club Group

AAA Colorado is a proud part of The Auto Club Group (ACG), the second-largest AAA club in North America with more than 14 million members across 14 U.S. states, the province of Quebec and two U.S. territories. ACG and its affiliates provide members with roadside assistance, insurance products, banking and financial services, travel offerings and more. ACG belongs to the national AAA federation with more than 60 million members in the United States and Canada. AAA’s mission is to protect and advance freedom of mobility and improve traffic safety. For more information, get the AAA Mobile app, visit, and follow us on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. Learn more.