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Don't assume your semi-automated driving system is 'hands free'

For decades, we've heard about the autopilot on airplanes. It takes off, cruises, corrects the pilot and lands the plane safely. It virtually takes over for the pilot -- although no one has yet suggested allowing planes to fly without pilots.

Today, automakers are working toward fully autonomous, "self-driving" cars that could see problems coming, avoid them, change lanes, keep track of the route, and even coordinate with other vehicles to ensure there are no collisions.

We're not there yet. It's crucial for drivers to understand that we have not reached full automation. Instead, carmakers have developed only semi-automated systems that are intended to help drivers -- not replace them.

We haven't reached the "autopilot" stage for vehicles, even though one manufacturer (Tesla Inc) actually calls its semi-autonomous driving system the Autopilot.

Tesla Autopilot and Full Self Driving systems

Let's start with the two versions of Tesla's Autopilot system. The Autopilot itself was introduced in 2015, although it has been updated since then. A more advanced version is called "Full Self Driving." Neither one actually offers fully autonomous driving. Autopilot "enables your car to steer, accelerate and brake automatically" within a lane. Full Self Driving includes highway lane changes, automated parking and "assisted stops" at intersections with traffic controls.

Despite the confusing names for these systems, Tesla insists that they are both intended for use only by "a fully attentive driver" whose hands remain on the steering wheel and who is "prepared to take over at any moment."

GM's Super Cruise

According to Reuters, General Motors calls the Super Cruise a "hands free driver assistance feature" that can be used on "compatible highways," meaning interstates and divided highways. The system is currently available on the Cadillac CT6 sedan. Later this year, it will be extended to the Cadillac Escalade, and then to other models next year.

Nissan ProPILOT

A variety of Nissan models in the U.S. are equipped with ProPILOT Assist, which the company describes as a "hands-on driving assistant." In Japan, ProPILOT 2.0 allows "hands-off single lane driving."

Ford Co-Pilot360

Starting in fall 2021, the Ford Mustang Mach-E will offer a new feature called Active Drive Assist as part of its existing CoPilot360 safety bundle. The new feature will allow for hands-free driving.

BMW Extended Traffic Jam Assistant

Several U.S. BMW models have this optional feature available. It allows "partially automated steering input on limited-access highways" up to 40 mph.

Again, none of these systems allows the driver to take their eyes off the road, even if they technically allow you to take your hands off the wheel. Semi-autonomous vehicles still require careful vigilance by every driver.

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