Collision-Avoidance Systems Are Changing the Look of Car Safety
N ot so long ago, it would have seemed incredible that your car would be able to”see” other vehicles or pedestrians, anticipate accidents, and automatically apply the brakes or take corrective steering actions. But an increasing number of cars can do this to some degree, as a result of a growing list of collision-avoidance systems.
Some of these capacities, such as forward-collision warning systems, have been in existence for a few years, largely on high-end luxury cars. Others, like steering aid, are just getting ready for prime time. The good news is that the collision-avoidance systems are getting better automobile safety and are spreading to mainstream automobiles.
The potential for these systems is so great that the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has added collision-avoidance system testing to its suite of security evaluations. The IIHS has determined that some of these collision-avoidance systems could prevent or mitigate many crashes. Now, to win top overall safety scores in the IIHS, a car should have a forward-collision warning system with automatic braking. Moreover, any autobrake system must operate effectively in formal track tests the IIHS conducts. Visit IIHS website for test results on individual models.
The federal National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is also on board, with an eye on making some collision-avoidance systems mandatory. NHTSA’s 5-Star Safety Ratings notice which systems are available on cars they crash-test. Their presence doesn’t affect the Star ratings yet, however.
The cost of collision-avoidance systems can still be an obstacle. Most advanced systems now come only as part of a large choices package or on a model’s higher, more costly trimming versions. Jumping to the trim line at which the security goodies are offered can add thousands of dollars to a vehicle’s price.
Lasers, Radar, and Cameras
These cutting-edge active security systems rely on a number of sensors, lasers, cameras, and short- and long-range radar. They monitor what’s happening around the automobile –vehicles, pedestrians, cyclists, and even street signs–and the automobile itself. Inputs are processed by computers, which then prompt some action from the vehicle or the driver. Those actions may start with attention-grabbers, like a beep, a flashing dash icon, a tug from the seatbelt, or a vibration in the seat or steering wheel. If the driver does not respond, the more advanced systems then apply partial or full braking pressure.
In our ongoing evaluations we’ve found that there’s a fine line between a helpful electronic co-pilot and a computerized backseat driver. If a warning system emits a lot of inappropriate alerts, then there’s an increasing temptation to switch it off.
Not every system on the market now is top-notch. The IIHS has discovered that some autonomous braking systems are more effective than others. But they conclude there’s a net benefit no matter.
A 2009 study conducted by the IIHS found that a 7 percent reduction in crashes for vehicles with a basic forward-collision warning system, and a 14 to 15 percent decrease for those who have automatic braking.
“Even in the instances where these systems failed to prevent a crash, even if there’s automatic braking going on, or when the driver does brake in response to a warning, that crash will be less acute than it might have been otherwise,” says David Zuby, chief research officer at the IIHS.
In the end, these systems can do a lot of good in preventing crashes from occurring in the first place. But it’s important for drivers to realize that none of these aids reduces the need to remain alert.
Current Active Safety Systems
Manufacturers routinely use unique, marketing-friendly names for their various systems. This makes it confusing to know the system’s full capabilities. When you are shopping for a new car, make sure to ask what the security feature does. For a comprehensive listing of the available systems for every manufacturer, visit our free Car Safety Hub.
Rear cross-traffic alert
Cross-traffic alert warns you of traffic approaching from the sides as possible reverse. The warning usually contains an audible chirp along with a visual cue in either the outside mirror or the back camera’s dash screen. The more advanced systems can also pick out bikes and pedestrians.
An illustration of how collision-avoidance systems works
Forward-collision warning (FCW) and autobrake
Also called a pre-crash warning system, these stand-alone or combined radar-, laser-, or camera-based systems warn drivers of an impending crash by using visual, auditory, or physical cues. Most vehicle systems also pre-charge the brakes and take other actions to prepare for impact. If the driver ignores the warnings, systems with autonomous braking, or autobrake, will apply partial or full braking force. They may be busy at anywhere from walking to highway speeds.
Blind Spot Alert
Blind-spot tracking (BSM) and assist
A blind-spot monitoring system uses radars or cameras to scan the areas beside and behind you, looking for vehicles entering or lurking in your blind zones. When such a vehicle is detected, an illuminated icon appears in or near the appropriate side-view mirror. If you signal a turn as a vehicle is in your blind zone, some systems deliver a stronger alert, like a blinking light or louder chirps. More advanced systems help keep you in your own lane by applying the brakes on one side of the car.
Pedestrian detection and braking
Pioneered by Volvo and now offered by others, pedestrian detection can recognize a individual straying into a vehicle’s path. Some will automatically apply the brakes, if needed, sometimes partially and sometimes to a complete stop. Some newer systems can also detect bicyclists.
As you turn the steering wheel adaptive headlights will swivel, which will help illuminate the road when going around curves. A 2014 IIHS study found that adaptive headlights improved drivers’ reaction times by about a third of a second. That might be just enough to prevent, say, hitting a parked car on a dark road.