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Serious problems discovered with self-driving cars

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2018 Model 3 sedans sit on display outside a Tesla showroom. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Tech and car companies are sinking millions into self-driving cars, but a new study says they won’t be ready for roads for years.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety tested five autonomous cars and found they may not see stopped vehicles and could even steer you into a crash if you’re not paying attention.

In a paper titled "Reality Check" the institute issued the warning after testing five of the systems from Tesla, Mercedes, BMW and Volvo on a track and public roads. The upshot is while they could save your life, the systems can fail under many circumstances.

"We have found situations where the vehicles under semi-automated control may do things that can put you and your passengers at risk, and so you really need to be on top of it to prevent that from happening," said David Zuby, the institute's chief research officer.

Among the scariest found by the Virginia-based institute was with the system in two Tesla vehicles, the Model S and Model 3. The institute tested the system with the adaptive cruise control turned off, but automatic braking on. At 31 miles per hour, both Teslas braked and mitigated a crash but still hit a stationary balloon. They were the only two models that failed to stop in time during tests on a track.

Yet when the adaptive cruise control, which keeps a set distance from cars in front, is activated, the Teslas braked earlier and gentler and avoided the balloon, the agency said.

On the road, the institute's engineers found that all the vehicles but Tesla's Model 3 failed to respond to stopped vehicles ahead of them, the institute said.

The systems tested, in the Teslas, BMW's 5-Series, the Volvo S-90 and the Mercedes E-Class, are among the best in the business right now and have been rated "superior" in previous IIHS tests. Zuby said the systems do increase safety but the tests show they are not 100 percent reliable.

Though the systems have names like Tesla's "Autopilot" or Volvo's "Pilot Assist," they are not self-driving vehicles, Zuby said. "They will help you with some steering or speed control but you really better be paying attention because they don't always get it right," he said.

Many of the cars' lane-centering systems failed, especially on curves or hills. The BMW, Model S and Volvo "steered toward or across the lane line regularly," requiring driver intervention, the IIHS said.

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