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Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

Cars do scary things sometimes when operating in driver-assist mode: braking in shadows, swerving at unseen obstacles and failing to respond the way we expect. The other night, an invisible set of hands kept vying for control of the 2019 Acura RDX I was driving. It gave me the creeps, like the car was possessed.

Why it matters: Consumers need to be able to trust the advanced driver assist systems on today’s vehicles or they will never embrace fully self-driving cars.

“These systems have a lot of potential for improving safety and reducing crashes. But we lose all of that if they are implemented in such a way that drivers are annoyed or uneasy about using them."
— Russ Rader, Insurance Institute for Highway Safety

The big picture: Safety features like blind-spot detection or backup cameras are the early building blocks of automated driving. We're now seeing more advanced systems —lane-keeping assist, adaptive cruise control and automatic emergency braking — that aim to help drivers or even correct their actions if necessary.

But these technologies don't always behave the way humans would, and sometimes, as I've learned, that can be downright frightening.

  • Cadillac's Super Cruise, a truly impressive hands-off highway driving system, got confused and lurched to the left and back again when it couldn't find the lane markings as I began to drive across a bridge.
  • When I was driving Volkswagen's 2019 Jetta, it veered toward the center median when it detected what it thought was an obstacle. It was just a puddle of orange paint spilled by a road crew.
  • IIHS says a Tesla Model 3 often slowed down unexpectedly when it encountered tree shadows on the road, oncoming vehicles in another lane or crossing traffic far ahead.
  • IIHS tested adaptive cruise control and active lane-keeping assist systems in the Mercedes E-class, BMW 5-series, Volvo S90 and Tesla Models 3 and S. All demonstrated their own share of creepy behavior.

The risk: With names like Autopilot or Pilot Assist, many of these technologies erroneously leave consumers thinking their cars can drive themselves.

  • If companies make these systems too capable, consumers might zone out and not be ready to react when they need to.
  • But if cars brake or swerve erratically, drivers might switch off the technology altogether, missing out on their potential safety benefits.

The bottom line: The early results underscore the fact that today's systems aren't a good substitute for human drivers.

Go deeper:

Go deeper

28 mins ago - World

Scoop: U.S. and Israel held secret talks on Iran "plan B"

Bennett and Biden. Photo: Sarahbeth Maney/Pool/Getty Images

The U.S. and Israel held secret talks on Iran last week to discuss a possible “plan B” if nuclear talks are not resumed, two senior Israeli officials tell me.

Why it matters: This is the first time a top-secret U.S.-Israel strategic working group on Iran has convened since the new Israeli government took office in June.

60 mins ago - World

Scoop: Jake Sullivan plans to visit Saudi Arabia, Egypt and UAE next week

Sullivan. Photo: Yasin Ozturk/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

White House National Security adviser Jake Sullivan is planning to travel to the Middle East next week, including a stop in Saudi Arabia. He would be the most senior Biden administration official to visit the kingdom.

Why it matters: Sullivan's first trip to the region since taking office is expected to include stops in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, sources briefed on the plans tell Axios. All three countries are longtime U.S. partners who have faced some early tensions with Biden.

2 hours ago - World

WHO revises air quality guidelines to reduce deaths from pollution

Smoke from California wildfires over the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco in August 2021. Photo: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The World Health Organization on Wednesday updated air quality guidelines it set roughly 15 years ago, saying that negative health effects from air pollutants can begin at lower levels than it previously thought.

Why it matters: The changes are meant to reduce deaths from pollutants that cause cardiovascular and respiratory diseases and prematurely kill an estimated 7 million people around the world annually, according to the WHO.