Thatcham Research warns over ‘autonomous’ vehicle marketing


The use of the word ‘autonomous’ in marketing materials produced by carmakers is lulling drivers into a false sense of security, according to Thatcham Research, the automotive research centre funded by the UK motor insurance industry. 

Together with the ABI (Association of British Insurers), Thatcham Research has issued an urgent call to carmakers and legislators for greater clarity around the capabilities of vehicles sold with driver assistance technologies.

"Names like Autopilot or ProPilot are deeply unhelpful, as they infer the car can do a lot more than it can."

Matthew Avery, Thatcham Research

The bodies have outlined the risks to UK drivers in a new paper – Assisted and Automated Driving Definition and Assessment – which they say identifies dangerous grey areas associated with some driver support technologies.

Among the risks they have identified are misleading names such as ‘Autopilot’ and ‘ProPilot’, guidance over how and when drivers should resume control from an automated driving system, and systems which are designed to work in specific situations, such as on motorways, but can be used anywhere.

“We are starting to see real-life examples of the hazardous situations that occur when motorists expect the car to drive and function on its own. Specifically, where the technology is taking ownership of more and more of the driving task, but the motorist may not be sufficiently aware that they are still required to take back control in problematic circumstances,” said Matthew Avery, Head of Research at Thatcham Research. 

“Fully Automated vehicles that can own the driving task from A to B, with no need for driver involvement whatsoever, won’t be available for many years to come. 

“Until then, drivers remain criminally liable for the safe use of their cars and as such, the capability of current road vehicle technologies must not be oversold.”

In a bid to provide guidance to carmakers and lawmakers, and promote road safety as assisted vehicles become more commonplace, Thatcham Research has drawn up a list of 10 key criteria that every assisted vehicle must have. 


“It begins with how systems are named and described across carmaker marketing materials and the driver’s handbook,” said Avery. “Names like Autopilot or ProPilot are deeply unhelpful, as they infer the car can do a lot more than it can. 

“Absolute clarity is needed, to help drivers understand the when and how these technologies are designed to work and that they should always remain engaged in the driving task.”

"We are a long way from fully autonomous cars"

James Dalton, ABI

James Dalton, Director of General Insurance Policy at the ABI, said: “Insurers are major supporters of efforts to get assisted and autonomous vehicles onto the UK’s roads.

“Given the part human error plays in the overwhelming majority of accidents, these technologies have the potential to dramatically improve road safety. 

“However, we are a long way from fully autonomous cars which will be able to look after all parts of a journey,” continued Dalton.

“Manufacturers must be responsible in how they describe and name what their vehicles can do, and the insurance industry is ready to hold them to account on this.”

Thatcham Research will also embark on a new consumer testing programme this summer, assessing assisted driving systems against the 10 criteria set out in its list.

“The next three years mark a critical period, as carmakers introduce new systems which appear to manage more and more of the driving task,” said Avery. 

“These are not Autonomous systems. Our concern is that many are still in their infancy and are not as robust or as capable as they are declared to be.

“We’ll be testing and evaluating these systems, to give consumers guidance on the limits of their performance. The ambition is to keep people safe and ensure that drivers do not cede more control over their vehicles than the manufacturer intended. 

“How carmakers name Assisted systems will be a key focus – with any premature inference around Automated capabilities being marked down. Automated functions that allow the driver to do other things and let the car do the driving will come, just not yet.”