Systems Are Trickling Down From Luxury to Mainstream Vehicles
Sophisticated technology that helps drivers avoid a crash is accelerating its descent from the rarified reaches of super luxury cars. What car makers, safety advocates and consumers still don't know is what difference that will make.
"Active safety technology" has been the buzz of auto-industry futurists for several years. The computing power installed on vehicles to manage airbags and anti-lock brake systems (as well as fuel and emissions controls) has formed a foundation for safety systems that don't just react to crashes – by exploding an airbag – but anticipate dangerous situations.
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Active safety systems now on the market fall into five areas, as defined by a recent study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the vehicle safety research arm of the insurance industry.
These categories are: forward collision warning with automatic braking; emergency brake assistance; lane departure warning; blind spot detection; and adaptive headlights.
I've experienced several of these technologies in either production or prototype form. The top of the line Lexus LS 460 sedan offers an optional collision warning system that senses when you are closing too rapidly with an object ahead, and automatically tightens the seatbelts and will automatically apply the brakes if the driver doesn't. It happens so fast, at least on a test track, you hardly know it before it's over. This technology confronts drivers with the unpleasant truth that a properly engineered machine can react more rapidly in an emergency than most humans can.
My limited experience with lane departure warning systems is different. These systems you notice. One system I have tried keeps an electronic eye on the white lines. If you cross a lane marker without signaling, you get a warning sound – say a chime. After about a day with one of these, I turned it off.
Adaptive headlights swivel to see around corners. These are available on a lengthy list of luxury cars. Driving in the city, on well-lit streets, this technology doesn't add much. But on a dark country road, you just might see a deer standing just around a bend that you wouldn't have otherwise.
The Insurance Institute analyzed crash data from 2002 to 2006, looking to correlate the circumstances of crashes with the potential for one of the five active safety technologies to make a difference.
Adrian Lund, the Insurance Institute's president, says there are three big questions about active safety technologies. One is the number of crashes in which the technology might play a part. The second is whether the information is delivered in an effective way so that drivers make the correct response. The third is "do drivers change their overall approach to the driving task, or do they turn off this stuff because it's too annoying?"
As for relevance, top on the list is forward collision warning with automatic braking. The IIHS estimates more than 2.2 million crashes, with 7,166 fatalities occurred annually, on average, during the 2002-2006 period that might have been prevented or made less severe if cars had systems that anticipated a head on collision, and braked the car. That's about 40% of total crashes reported to police on average per year during that time.
That doesn't mean all those crashes would be prevented by automatic braking systems, the IIHS says. But some of them might have been and the pool of accidents where forward collision warning systems would come into play is the largest by far of the five areas studied.
Lane departure warning technology has a different profile. Only about 483,000 crashes a year are linked to drifting out of the lane. But those accidents resulted in more than 10,000 fatalities. While lane departure warning systems in vehicles are relatively new and haven't been research, the effectiveness of rumble strips installed along roadsides has been studied. Institute researchers estimate they cut by 25% to 30% the number of accidents in which a drowsy or distracted driver runs off the road. That suggests onboard lane departure warning systems could have a significant impact -- if drivers use them.
Mr. Lund says predicting the real-world impact of technology isn't easy. The insurance industry anticipated that anti-lock brake systems would result in a big decrease in accidents – because fewer cars would skid out of control during hard braking. But real world statistics didn't bear out that prediction – or insurance rate discounts based on it.
Safety researchers also are wary of technologies that make drivers feel "too protected," Mr. Lund says. Those see-around-the-corner headlights could fall into that category, encouraging people to drive faster on darkened roads.
While the Institute and insurers wait for real-world data to draw conclusions, car makers are pushing ahead.
Volvo, the Swedish luxury brand owned by Ford Motor Co., plans to expand its existing active technology offerings with a system called "City Safety," which will offer accident avoidance at low speeds. For example, a Volvo that is turning left at under 9 miles per hour might stop itself if the vehicle in front suddenly stops.
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