My experience with collision avoidance safety equipment first began when I had the opportunity to drive a 2012 Infiniti M56S. Being a certifiable car nut since birth, I was thrilled to drive it, though for reasons other than its safety technology. For me, the car’s appeal was its DOHC, direct-injection, 5.6 liter V8 that churned out 420 horsepower through all four wheels via a 7-speed, shiftable-automatic transmission. And all this power met the road through gorgeous, factory 20-inch rims shod with ultra-high performance summer tires, which in turn was all topped off with a svelte, gorgeous design. To be frank, the only safety features I was immediately aware of was that the car was full of airbags, thanks to the ample badging and logos throughout the car’s interior.
Just as I had expected, the car proved to be a pure joy to drive. But as I made my way back to my destination after the test drive, I noticed a rapidly flashing bright orange light at the base of the driver door A-pillar. At the same time, a loud beeping sound rang through the speakers. A quick glance over my left shoulder revealed my mistake. I was drifting out of my lane and the massive, intimidating grill of a semi-truck now filled my peripherals. I had lost the behemoth in my blind spot while fiddling with the car stereo — classic. But before I could make the necessary correction, I felt the car do something entirely unexpected — it effectively centered itself back in the proper lane, entirely on its own. This all happened in mere seconds, and I found myself pleasantly surprised.
As it turned out, the M was equipped with what Infiniti calls its Blind Spot Intervention System. As the name would suggest, the system was designed to do exactly what it had done for me and alert the absent-minded driver of the danger, while simultaneously moving the car back to the center of the lane.
How does it do this? The car’s stability management system instantaneously processes the information through a series of cameras, radar, and sonar sensors, and applies light braking pressure to the opposite side of where the car is drifting. In my case, while I fiddled with the car’s amazing stereo system, I drifted slightly into left lane, so the car’s eerily intelligent systems gently applied the right-side brakes to bring us back to where we belonged: in the center of the proper lane.
After the driving the vehicle, I investigated its spec sheet. Not only did the car come equipped with blind spot intervention, but other systems like Forward Collision Warning and Intelligent Brake Assist as well. These systems use a radar rangefinder to help alert drivers to oncoming objects, while determining the closing speeds of vehicles ahead of you. In extreme cases, the system can even apply brake pressure on its own to help reduce collision speed and impact if the driver doesn’t respond in time. Thankfully, I didn’t have to “test out” either of the latter features. The experience left a profound impact on me, and since then I have paid close attention to the development of features like these.
Now, roughly a year later, collision avoidance systems are receiving more attention than ever. In fact, luxury car manufacturers are engaged in a collision avoidance arms race. Less-complex features, like backup cameras, are even popping up on vehicles not catered to the upper crust. More significantly, the technology has attracted a great deal of attention from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS).
On July 3, the IIHS released information regarding collision avoidance technology from extensive analysis of cars equipped with such systems and their identical model counterparts. What they found was that the systems were working, and in most cases, working well. The Highway Loss Data Institute (HLDI), an affiliate of the IIHS, pored over thousands of real-life insurance claims to study the effectiveness of forward collision avoidance systems, with and without auto-braking, adaptive headlight systems, and lane departure systems. For cars with forward warning collision systems, the HLDI examined forward collision systems offered on Acura, Mercedes-Benz, and Volvo vehicles. The data showed that property damage liability (PDL) claims were 14% lower on Mercedes and Acura vehicles than compared to the same models not equipped with forward collision warning systems and autonomous braking. In addition, Volvos with the system reduced crash rates by 10%.
Mercedes and Volvo also offer versions of their forward collision warning systems without autonomous braking, and while the HLDI did indicate they also lower crash rates, they were not as successful as the models equipped with the feature. The HDLI reported that this may be because drivers had to respond to visual and audible warnings before applying the brakes, and because the actual detection systems were not as complex and may not have provided as much warning. For example, Volvo’s collision avoidance system without auto-braking only operates at speeds over 20 mph, while the version equipped with auto brake is functional from as slow as 3 mph.
Surprisingly, when it comes to the lane departure warning systems, the HLDI showed that such warning systems showed no improvement, and in some cases, actually increased the number of claims compared to models without the feature. However, Buick and Mercedes vehicles equipped with lane departure warning were associated with increased claim rates under both collision and PDL coverage, along with an increase in injuries sustained by occupants inside the insured vehicle. Neither system had collision avoidance features, and only provide audible and visual warnings.
“We had high hopes for lane departure systems because of the severity of the crashes that occur when a car leaves its lane, but so far, the insurance data does not suggest that these systems are effective,” David Zuby, a collision avoidance systems expert with the IIHS, said.
The only manufacturer that showed a lower claim frequency compared to cars not equipped with lane departure warning systems was Volvo. However, the HLDI noted that this may be because Volvo bundled the feature with others, like forward collision warning and auto brake.
One of the most surprising systems to show significant results was with adaptive headlight systems from Acura, Mazda, Mercedes, and Volvo. The data revealed that PDL claims were reduced by as much as 10% for vehicles with the feature. What made the data so significant is that only about 7% of crashes reported to the police from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. involve more than one vehicle.
The results from collision prevention systems like these, in particular those with autonomous emergency braking, have been significant enough that European Commission and Euro NCAP plan on including auto-brake systems as part of European crash evaluations by 2014. The IIHS also plans on including the systems in future tests as well.
“We want to be able to implement these systems in our testing as soon as possible,” Zuby said. “And at some point in the future, we will implement these systems into our overall safety ratings of the cars we test, including our Top Safety Pick designation.”
In essentially making the systems mandatory, organizations like the EuroNCAP and the IIHS hope to put pressure on auto manufacturers to make these technologies more available to the average consumer. Currently, most systems are only available on luxury vehicles, and if they are available on non-luxury models, they tend to carry a substantial premium compared to models that don’t come equipped with the systems.
“We hope that one of the responses we get (from research and testing) is to make these kinds of technologies more available across a manufacturer’s model range,” Zuby said. “That’s exactly why we did the research — so that we could have actual data to back up the effectiveness of these systems.”
General Motors already plans on making these systems more accessible. The company’s newly released flagship sedan, the Cadillac XTS comes equipped with all of the collision avoidance features and more, and though the features have only trickled down into a few moderately priced, common vehicles, James Bell, the head of consumer affairs for General Motors, says that the company fully intends on implementing these systems in more platforms soon.
“GM wants to take the same technology you see in the new Cadillac XTS and make these systems available on other cars,” Bell said. “[And] not only within Cadillac, but other GM brands as well. We can offer these systems that you see on the XTS in other vehicles, even in entry-level cars like the Chevrolet Sonic, but there is the challenge of getting the volume up to where it can be affordable on entry-level vehicles.”
Time and financial investment to get even flagship cars like the XTS to the point where it is now is staggering, Bell explained. To achieve their goals of equipping more vehicles with collision avoidance technologies, the company must first achieve enough success with its top-of-the-line vehicles.
“GM’s philosophy when it comes to safety is assisting drivers before, during, and after an accident. As humans, we are imperfect beings, and unfortunately, accidents can happen,” Bell said. “It’s taken years to develop the systems in the XTS, and it’s been a large financial and human investment to get it to where it is today. It involves getting vendors, parts, and components to a point where they can be offered on every vehicle, and we want to get to a point where we do. It should be the right of every driver to have them.”
Presumably, other car manufacturers will face similar hurdles when it comes to creating cars with the safety features favored by the IIHS. But while the increase of new technology that can help drivers avoid accidents is a good thing, we should remember that they are merely intended to be an aid and not something on which drivers should become too dependent.
In my own experience, I was more in danger of cutting off the semi-truck driver behind me rather than actually colliding with him, but the unpleasant experience could have easily been avoided if I had been focusing on the road and not the stereo. While I would certainly rather have these systems in my own personal car, the important thing is that no collision avoidance system can replace simply being responsible behind the wheel. Even though the HLDI data showed that collision avoidance systems were able to reduce accidents by 14%, the vast majority of these accidents still happened. So whether or not future cars come standard with all the bells-and-whistles safety features, drivers should still make driving their top priority on the road to stay safe.