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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

Omicron pushes COVID deaths toward 2,000 per day

Expand chart
Data: N.Y. Times; Cartogram: Kavya Beheraj/Axios

The U.S. Omicron wave may be peaking, but now COVID deaths are climbing as cases continue to soar in most of the country.

The big picture: Omicron’s stranglehold in the U.S. started about a month ago. Its death toll — while almost certain to be smaller than previous waves of the pandemic — is only now starting to take hold, and deaths will likely continue to rise for several weeks.

Tax season nightmare ahead for understaffed IRS

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

The IRS will start accepting 2021 tax returns in less than a week, and the filing delays and administrative headaches to come might eclipse last year — which was “one of the worst filing seasons," according to an independent advocacy agency within the IRS.

Why it matters: For taxpayers, especially with complex or paper filings, this means headaches, delayed refunds, and mistakes.

Reports: CIA finds "Havana Syndrome" unlikely caused by foreign campaign

CIA Director William Burns testifies during a Senate hearing on Capitol Hill last April. Photo: Saul Loeb-Pool/Getty Images

A preliminary CIA report rules out a foreign global campaign as the cause of a mysterious illness known as "Havana syndrome" that's afflicted American and Canadian diplomats around the world, per multiple reports.

Why it matters: Some lawmakers had suggested the sometimes debilitating illness was due to directed energy attacks. But CIA officials told the New York Times that most of the 1,000 cases reported to the government could be "explained by environmental causes, undiagnosed medical conditions or stress." This finding has angered some victims, per the NYT.