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As Donna Lee approached the intersection of Roberts Drive and Spalding Drive in Sandy Springs, Ga., the salesman in the passenger seat told her not to hit the brakes, even though two cars were stopped and waiting at the red light ahead.

According to court documents, Lee and Mercedes salesman Desmond Domingo have similar accounts of what happened next on the evening of May 10, 2014. The Distronic semiautonomous system in the Mercedes-Benz GL450, which Domingo believed would bring the car to a full stop, did not kick in as he expected. The Mercedes slammed into the car in front of it at around 40 mph, causing a chain reaction of crashes that left a 16-year-old driver with a concussion and significant damage to the cars involved.

Situations such as that -- when car salespeople are trying to demonstrate semiautonomous technology to customers who've never experienced it -- are emerging as a concern for industry watchers who fear salespeople will oversell or misrepresent technology, leading to accidents.

November was the deadline to submit comments on the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's Federal Automated Vehicles Policy. Several groups that submitted comments on the pending guidelines said the policy does not go far enough to outline what kind of training the dealership sales force should undertake.

Semiautonomous technology is rolling out piecemeal, and each automaker has a system that does something different. Some bring a vehicle to a full stop. Some slow the vehicle to about 5 mph. Some can keep the vehicle in the lane, with little input from the driver. Others issue warnings when the vehicle is about to leave the lane but leave the driver in control.

'A mess'

The wide variety of options makes it hard to keep track of what each vehicle does. Mike Jackson, CEO of AutoNation, said this is a problem that likely won't be solved until fully autonomous vehicles -- ones that drive themselves without input from the driver -- are available.

"Until then, it's going to be a mess," he said.

Ibro Muharemovic, head of advanced engineering at Continental, worked on an image-processing and lane-recognition system for an American automaker, which he declined to name. When the final active safety system was launched on a vehicle in 2010, he proudly took his mother to a dealership to show her his work.

"I asked the dealer what the car could do, and then he kind of scared me," Muharemovic said. "He told me the car could drive itself. I knew for a fact that it couldn't."

Since then, Muharemovic said consumer misunderstanding of active safety technology, which is the basis for a lot of autonomous technology, has him dismayed. He is concerned when he hears of drivers turning off collision-avoidance and lane-keeping warning features, because they were developed with consumer safety in mind.

"Bottom line, educating the consumers on the capabilities of active safety and automated driving vehicles -- and highlighting the benefits of such systems -- is critical," he said. Education will help consumers accept these new technologies, and can prevent them from misusing them on the road.

The National Automobile Dealers Association decided to tackle this issue, announcing in April it was partnering with the National Safety Council to promote the "My Car Does What" consumer education campaign. The group said it believes automakers are doing a good job educating the sales force about which technologies do what, but there is still a gap in consumer education.

Turnover effect

Despite training efforts by automakers, Jackson said, there may be systemic dealership issues that could cause significant problems as these technologies become more prevalent. NADA data show that many dealerships are revolving doors for staffers, with turnover rates hitting 65 percent for salesmen in 2015 and 88 percent for saleswomen. With turnover rates that high, Jackson said, it's too hard to hang on to trained people who know the vehicles they are selling inside and out.

Jackson said he questions whether qualities highly regarded in salespeople today -- mainly, an ability to negotiate on price -- are the skills needed to sell technology-laden semiautonomous vehicles.

"A lot of people who love talking about technology, the last thing they want to do is talk about price," Jackson said.

"That's not what they want to do with their days. It's an oxymoron. They don't go together."

He said it will take a radical shift in how vehicles are priced and how salespeople are paid -- moving to a non-negotiation model that is salary-based rather than commission-based -- before the industry will be able to attract the right kind of people who are "much better positioned to talk about the technical issues that are coming."

Tamara Schwartz, the mother of the teen struck by the vehicle being test-driven by Lee, wrote a letter commenting on the proposed guidance on autonomous vehicles. She encouraged the Department of Transportation to find a way to track accidents that occur due to a misuse or misunderstanding of the technology.

"We are very aware of the wonderful potential safety benefits that increasingly automated features can bring to our roadways, and look forward to a future of more secure automotive travel," Schwartz wrote. "However, as our experience shows, this current situation of various manufacturers bringing a variety of different features to market can cause a lot of confusion."
 
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