Study: No, your car can't drive itself

Four-in-ten Americans misjudge partially automated driving systems' abilities based on name alone


DENVER (Nov. 15, 2018) – If you've recently purchased a vehicle with "autopilot" technology, you might reasonably believe your car is able to drive itself. You wouldn't be alone: A new survey from AAA finds that 40 percent of Americans expect partially automated driving systems, with names such as Autopilot, ProPILOT or Pilot Assist, to be able to take the wheel – no driver necessary. The problem? AAA tested these systems and found that they simply aren't equipped to take over the task of driving. In fact, they are easily waylaid by every day, real-world conditions such as poor lane markings, unusual traffic patterns and stationary vehicles. 

"The bottom line is that exciting advances in vehicle technology will eventually make our roads safer," said AAA Colorado spokesman Skyler McKinley. "Still, vague or confusing terminology can lead someone to overestimate a system's capabilities, unintentionally placing the driver and others on the road at risk."

AAA tested four vehicles equipped with systems that combine technologies such as adaptive cruise control and lane-keeping assist to help maintain lane position, forward speed, and following distance in relation to a lead vehicle. Importantly, each of these systems was marketed or named in line with the promise of serving as an "autopilot" in a nod to the advanced systems commonly found in airplanes.

While driving on public roadways, AAA found test vehicles struggled when encountering moderate traffic, curved roadways and streets with busy intersections. Researchers noted many instances where the test vehicles experienced issues such as lane departures, hugging lane markers, "ping-ponging" within the lane, inadequate braking, unexpected speed changes, and inappropriate following distances. AAA's research also revealed that nearly 90 percent of events requiring driver intervention were the result of the test vehicle's inability to maintain lane position. Driver intervention was often required to avoid a potential collision. 

During closed-course testing, researchers simulated common driving situations – such as staying within the lane at 45 mph, following a distracted or impaired driver, encountering a commercial vehicle, or contending with a vehicle that suddenly changed lanes to reveal a stationary vehicle. In the scenario where the lead vehicle changed lanes to reveal a stationary one, three out of the four test vehicles required driver intervention to avoid an imminent crash. 

"Both real-world and closed-course testing exposed serious limitations with technologies billed as fully automated," McKinley said. "It's not just disingenuous. It can be dangerous. Consumers need to be educated on the nuances between system names and functionality long before they leave the lot with a new car and switch these systems on."

Alarmingly, four-in-ten (40%) Americans would expect partially automated car systems with names such as Autopilot, ProPILOT or Pilot Assist to drive the car independently. Millennials (59%) and Generation X (40%) are more likely to expect that these systems have the ability to drive the car by itself than Baby Boomers (27%).

To reduce the misuse of partially automated systems, AAA encourages drivers to request a demonstration at the dealership and thoroughly read their vehicle owner's manual. As this technology becomes more prevalent, standardized naming conventions across vehicles will become necessary. Greater consistency across the automotive industry will help consumers understand the type of technology their vehicle has along with how, when and where to use these systems. For now, motorists should remain engaged in the driving task and maintain control of their vehicle at all times. Drivers should also avoid using these systems on urban surface streets with many intersections and on roadways with significant curving. 


To assess the capabilities of partially automated vehicle systems, AAA conducted primary research in partnership with the Automotive Club of Southern California's Automotive Research Center in Los Angeles, California. Track testing was conducted on closed surface streets on the grounds of Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California. Public highway evaluation was conducted on surface streets, highways and limited-access freeways throughout the greater Los Angeles area.

Four test vehicles were selected: the 2018 Mercedes-Benz S-Class, the 2018 Nissan Rogue, the 2017 Tesla Model S and the 2019 Volvo XC40. Each test vehicle was outfitted with industry-standard instrumentation, sensors, and cameras to capture vehicle dynamics, position data, and braking intervention. Complete methodology can be found at

The consumer survey was conducted October 4-7, 2018 using two probability samples: randomly selected landline telephone and mobile phone numbers. The combined sample consisted of 1,003 adults (18 years and older) living in the continental U.S. The margin of error for the study is 4 percent at the 95 percent confidence level. Smaller subgroups will have larger error margins. 

About AAA Colorado

More than 685,000 members strong, AAA Colorado is the state's most-trusted advocate for the safety and security of all travelers. As North America's largest motoring and leisure travel organization, AAA provides more than 58 million members with travel, insurance, financial, and automotive-related services - as well as member-exclusive savings. For more information, visit